I Guess I’m Already There
Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, This Must be the Place portrays an aging rock star’s search for meaning, connection, family, a home, a purpose, a Nazi SS officer, and a phone booth
With his dark clothes, black teased big hair, eyeliner and shocking red lipstick, 50 year old Cheyenne (Sean Penn), with his reading glasses on a chain around his neck, looks like a sad clown, a relic of the 1980s glam rock look inspired by Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure. Cheyenne speaks slowly with the quiet, high-pitched voice of a child. He suffers from sciatica and moves with stiffness – it is immediately apparent he may be suffering from more than depression, affected by drugs and drink from wilder days.
This Must Be The Place is the first English-language film production by Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, acclaimed for his previous art house hits Il Divo and The Consequences of Love. After the two met in Cannes in 2008, the screenplay of This Must Be The Place was written with Penn in mind.
Along with a fascination with Nazi war criminals who had managed to hide the past behind ordinary lives, Sorrentino was attracted to the daring juxtaposition of a self-absorbed, lazy rock star, who would seem like the last person to be searching for a Nazi war criminal. This Must Be The Place is a portrait of a jaded aging ‘goth’ rocker named Cheyenne, living in Dublin, who emerges from his 30-year seclusion to embark on an unexpected road trip across the heartland of America, re-igniting his father’s quest to find his Nazi tormentor.
We first encounter Cheyenne in his mansion watching Jamie Oliver on TV and wondering whether to take a profit on selling his Tesco shares. Living off his royalties and having managed to make some good investments, he does not have to worry about money but otherwise has few ‘rock star’ pretentions. He is happily married to Jane (Frances McDormand) his devoted wife of over 30 years, naturalistic in looks, pragmatic, full of life, and working happily as a fire-fighter in Dublin.
The first half hour of the film is involved with some local action in Dublin. Cheyenne wheels his trolley through some residential streets to the supermarket to buy food – a frozen pizza that he "cooks" for Jane later on. One of the film's delights is that virtually everyone Cheyenne encounters treats him as if he looks perfectly normal. He languidly hangs out in a café drinking coffee and painting his nails with his friend Mary – a 16-year old gothic/punk whom he encourages to go out with a waiter there. They go lay flowers on the grave of two brothers who years earlier acted on the gothic despair in Cheyenne’s lyrics and committed suicide.
Cheyenne is guilt-ridden over the deaths, estranged from his father and although beloved, seems adrift and purpose-free, somehow unable to bring his life into focus. He observes, "We start out asking, ‘Is that a life?’ and end up saying, ‘That’s life.’" The film belongs to Penn, completely convincing as the child-like man, who is none the less disarming and sincere.
The turning point comes when Cheyenne learns that his father is dying and travels to New York in the hope of reconciliation. Fear of flying dictates he take a luxury liner (along the way advising a group of women in an elevator how best to apply lipstick) and is reunited in New York with his Jewish orthodox family. He is bereft to find out his father has already died. Told by his cousin of his father’s obsession with tracking down former SS officer Alois Lange who humiliated him in Auschwitz, Cheyenne picks up where his father left off and starts a life-altering quest across America to track down and confront his father’s nemesis.
In New York, Cheyenne meets professional Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler – a brilliant hard-boiled character played by Judd Hirsch, who confesses "I’m 79 years old and I’m still living in 1940". Cheyenne is also reunited with David Byrne (as himself) performing the timelessly classic title song that sets the tone for the film: "Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there – I guess that this must be the place".
An immersive odyssey ensues, a travelogue with colourful pit-stops and intersections with a cameo parade of lonesome lives in Michigan, New Mexico and, finally, Utah, with visits to his target’s estranged wife and granddaughter, and encounters with helpful strangers.
With a vivid array of diametrically opposed images, the contrast of Cheynne’s distinctive look is a constant emotive device – he looks bizarre next to his Jewish orthodox family in the small town diner.
The camera is creatively on the move with many swooping crane shots of stunning vibrant landscapes, as well as capturing Edward Hopper-esque moments – the stillness, the alienation and loneliness of interiors and open spaces. He is constantly trailing a small wheelie suitcase with him, he blows his wispy hair out of this face, he drinks a disturbingly orange-coloured beverage noisily through a straw, he does not possess a mobile phone and has to stop at gas stations to make calls.
Along the journey, Cheyenne becomes alive. In the spectacularly poignant scenes when he tracks down Alois Lange, he succeeds in avenging his father’s humiliation, and so much more.
Sorrentino, too, succeeds in composing a highly creative, immensely entertaining and challenging masterpiece. This Must Be The Place is a multi-facetted cinematic experience: a compelling and totally captivating curiosity item that brims with quirkiness, humour and drama, with stunning visual compositions, with punchy dialogue and a superb sound track that is central to the film, with inspired casting and powerful performances. Not everything is made explicit in the narrative, but rather fed to us as thought-provokingly pieces of a puzzle.