Cheyenne is a faded rock star, living out his mundane days in Dublin. When his father dies, Cheyenne sets off on a journey of revenge and self-discovery across the US; a journey that will change him forever.
Polo Sorrentino is a celebrated director, but this is the first time that he has crossed over to make a film in the English language. It was always going to be a challenge; understanding the rhythms of language, especially in Dublin. The good news is that Sorrentino has managed to capture the Dublin sense of humour and love of the slightly absurd.
Sean Penn is on rare form as Cheyenne. He is almost unrecognisable in his eyeliner and lipstick. Instead of the obviously strong characters that we are used to seeing him play, Penn’s portrayal of Cheyenne is quiet and reserved, yet he dominates the screen every time he appears; it is impossible to take your eyes off him. Cheyenne is a man with a Peter Pan like innocence; he has seen how the world treats adults – through neglect from his father – so he has never really grown up. Whether this is a conscious choice or not is a matter for debate, but Cheyenne is not as daft as he may look. This is a man who knows the consequences of his actions, and takes decisions based on them. Sean Penn captures the innocence of the character without allowing him to ever come off as stupid. In fact, during the course of the movie, Cheyenne proves that he is ten times smarter than those around him. He is a person that others trust, and even though he has probably seen more of the world and lived a high profile life, he treats each person he encounters as his equal.
There is definitely tragedy in Cheyenne’s life, but Penn never allows the character to be pathetic. This is a man we love and identify with, but never feel pity for. Cheyenne knows his own mind, but Penn reserves the need to be demonstrative about this. Instead, Penn is beautifully understated as a faded rock star who finally faces his demons.
The supporting cast do just that; support Cheyenne. As Cheyenne travels through the US, he encounters many people who touch his life in different ways. David Byrne cameos as himself, an old friend who Cheyenne reconnects with. He also makes a connection with single mother Rachel (Kerry Condon), and has a rather entertaining argument with her young son. Cheyenne’s wife, Jane (Frances McDormand) indulges him without patronising him, and McDormand finds a gentle sweetness in the role. Simon Delaney embodies Dublin crassness, but in the most entertaining manner.
Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script is one of rare tenderness as Cheyenne finds out more and more about himself, this is a man who is afraid of flying, but hardly thinks twice before he chases down his father’s tormentor. The film is about the journey, and although the idea of finding the Nazi who persecuted a loved one may have been done before, it has not yet been done like this. Cheyenne is a gentle man who believes that this encounter with the man who ‘tortured’ his father will be the way to redeem their relationship, albeit posthumously.
In all, This Must Be The Place is a road movie. With this film, Sorrentino joins the ranks of many filmmakers who have become fascinated with the journey, rather than the destination. There are moments of true humour, but this really is a tragic film; Cheyenne has hidden behind his fame (and his hair) for many years, and when finally faced with the prospect of growing up, he is lost. Sorrentino has captured the eclectic look of the US, and takes advantage of the varied landscape to tell stories through images. The script is wonderful; Cheyenne has some brilliant lines including “Why is Lady Gaga…?”, and although the pace may stop and start, this does not detract. This is Cheyenne’s journey and while he is on the screen, he fascinates. Sean Penn gives one of the performances of his career in this tender story about how far we must go to find ourselves, and peace.