‘This Must be the Place’ movie review: Sean Penn as an Ozzy-like rocker

A delightfully oddball little piece of work that never seems to be the same film for more than fifteen minutes at a time, This Must Be the Place is less than the sum of its parts, but when the parts are so engaging it’s hard to complain.

Front and center is Sean Penn, in one of the strangest performances of his career as Cheyenne, an aging Ozzy Osbourne/Alice Cooper-like rocker (based, it seems, on The Cure’s Robert Smith) who has given up music long ago but still retains the rockstar image, mascara and all. Penn is nearly inaudible throughout the film, mumbling to himself (Ozzy-like) at less than half the volume of his co-stars.

Early scenes depict the banality of his current life in the suburbs of Dublin, as he ponders Tesco stock, plays handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) in their drained swimming pool, and tries to arrange a date for his young friend Mary (Eve Hewson), whose brother has skipped town. He also visits the grave of two former fans whose suicides contributed to his withdrawal from the music scene.

The narrative shifts dramatically when Cheyenne learns that his father is dying of cancer. Returning ‘home’ to New York, he discovers more about the orthodox Jewish father he hadn’t seen or spoke to in decades: dad, a former prisoner at a concentration camp during WWII, had been tracking his Nazi tormentor, now in hiding in the US, for years.

Yeah, that’s right. Cheyenne, naturally, picks up where dad left off, and takes to the road, hunting this Nazi across the USA. But story clarity is never the focus of This Must Be the Place; a lot of plot can pass by without much ado, and unless you’re paying attention (especially to Penn’s barely-intelligible dialogue) the shifts in narrative can be jarring.

This Must Be the Place is the English-language debut for Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who previously made the Oscar-nominated Il Divo. While the film’s strengths don’t lie in its script (Sorrentino co-wrote with Umberto Contarello) or (leisurely) direction, he’s assembled a cast and crew that would make the Coen Brothers or David Lynch proud, and ensures some level of cult attention.

Most diverting is the participation of David Byrne, whose Talking Heads tune This Must be the Place inspired the film and serves as its theme. Byrne also composed some new music for the film (the soundtrack is excellent), and appears on screen as himself, an old friend of Cheyenne.

The supporting cast is also eclectic, though given the nature of the road movie, not many have more than a few minutes of screen time. Joyce van Patten and Kerry Condon are relatives of the Nazi; Harry Dean Stanton and Shea Whigham are two of the memorable characters Cheyenne meets in his travels. Most memorable, however, is Judd Hirsh as Mordecai Midler, an aging Nazi hunter who encourages Cheyenne to finish what his father started.

Penn is absolutely arresting in the lead: you can barely take your eyes off of him, and you’re always straining your ears to make out what he’s saying. It’s a vexing performance, and nothing less than astonishing that the actor is able to get you to care about this character.

While This Must Be the Place is an entirely European production, it captures Americana in a way few US films do; Sorrentino joins Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and Steve McQueen (Shame) as European directors who have captured the American landscape better than most Hollywood films.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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