The first thing that strikes you about Paolo Sorrentino’s latest drama, This Must Be The Place, is its oddball nature. It’s odd seeing Sean Penn up there on screen looking like a cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and Edward Scissorhands (but with the mannerisms of Ozzy Osbourne). It’s equally odd seeing the Oscar-winning Hollywood actor shuffling around Blanchardstown Shopping Centre with a wheeled caddy. And the arc of the storyline is particularly odd, given that what begins as a quirky drama in Dublin quickly develops into a road movie in New Mexico, incorporating redemption, revenge and Nazi war criminals.
As curious as this all may seem, it actually fits neatly into Paolo Sorrentino’s body of work. This is a director, after all, who has established a strong reputation - thanks to such gems as The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) - as an innovative, visually striking film-maker happy to combine diverse film genres and unafraid to tackle tricky subject matter.
This Must Be The Place is the Italian director’s first offering in the English language but it conforms to Sorrentino’s avowed point of departure for all his work i.e. "the sight of a man, usually alone, in a certain place’’. In this instance, that man is retired American rock star Cheyenne (Penn) and that place is the Dublin mansion he now shares with his firefighter wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). Cheyenne is a creature at odds with the modern world. He still dresses like the star he once was (eyeliner, wild hair, leathers) but he has long stopped performing following the suicide of two of his young fans, and now spends his days shuffling around Dublin, moving and speaking to the beat of his own drum. The odd fan still comes out of the woodwork but the main people who occupy his life are his devoted wife, a teenage goth, Mary, (Eve Hewson, daughter of you know who), and Mary’s mother, Olwen Fouéré, a woman pining for the son who has unexpectedly left home (a terraced house in the shadow of the Aviva Stadium).
The storyline takes a curious twist when Cheyenne is summoned home to New York following the death of his father. It turns out that Cheyenne’s father, a Holocaust survivor, has spent his life unsuccessfully tracking down his concentration camp tormentor. It’s now left to the unlikely figure of Cheyenne to take up the baton and head off in pursuit of the Nazi war criminal.
If the first part of the movie feels like a quirky, Coens-style black comedy (aided by the presence of Frances McDormand), the second becomes a classic road movie as Cheyenne sets out across the deserts of New Mexico. Along the way he encounters some fascinating characters including Nazi hunter Judd Hirsch, single mom Kerry Condon, David Byrne (as David Byrne) and Harry Dean Staunton (bringing echoes of Paris, Texas) as a diner dude with a fascinating story to tell.
Though there are flaws in the narrative (some of the Dublin scenes involving Olwen Fouré’s character don’t quite add up), This Must Be The Place has much to recommend it, notably Sean Penn’s quirky character study (a likely Oscar-nominated performance), a superb supporting cast and Luca Bigazzi’s marvellous cinematography. Bravo.