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This Must Be the Place

November 24, 2012
This Must Be the Place

I can’t say that I’m familiar with Neapolitan filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, probably because I don’t see a huge number of Italian films. But having seen the Irish-produced This Must Be the Place, it’s clear that this is a director to watch. On top of a great story featuring a fascinating character study, it’s got some beautifully framed visuals and precise camera work, making a real work of art.

The singly-monikered Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is an aging former glam-rock star, and still dresses the part. As an idea of how big Cheyenne and the Fellows were, he corrects someone’s memory that he’d sung with Mick Jagger — in fact it was Mick Jagger who joined him. But now he lives in Dublin off of his royalties, puttering around a huge mansion, empty except for himself and his wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). Thankfully he’s not mobbed by former fans; he only gets the occasional glimmer of recognition, except from one young woman, Mary (Eve Hewson), with whom he maintains a friendship. Despite maintaining his appearance, he seems dissatisfied with his past, trying to prod Rachel out of her prickly, gothy standoffishness. And yet he can’t bring himself to engage either.

And then his father dies. The two men had been estranged since Cheyenne was a teenager and came to the realization that his father didn’t and would never love him being who he was. Traveling back to New York, he meets Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), a Nazi hunter who clues him in that his father had spent the last decades trying to find Aloise Lange, the man who had humiliated him at Auschwitz. This touches some sort of nerve in Cheyenne, and he decides to take up the search himself.

The path winds across the country. In Bad Axe, Michigan, he finds Lange’s wife (Joyce Van Patten), who says her husband died long ago. A clue at her house leads to their granddaughter, Rachel (Kerry Condon) in Alamogordo, New Mexico. From there, it’s off to Huntsville, Utah — Lange’s last known address — where Cheyenne finds Robert Plath (Harry Dean Stanton), the inventor of rolling luggage.

Shooting in all these locations gives Sorrentino a chance to really show off. His compositions are gorgeous and wide when he’s outside, while intimate and creative indoors. He may not show the fantastic flair of Ang Lee, Tarsem, or Guillermo del Toro, but he is no less artistic in creating his images.

The premise is faintly ridiculous, and yet Sorrentino plays it utterly straight. It would be easy to descend into madcap comedy, or to paint Cheyenne as an object of ridicule, and in a way that would be more realistic. Let’s be honest: a man in his fifties dressing like Alice Cooper or Robert Smith on the streets of the real-life Huntsville, Alamogordo, or Bad Axe would probably get the eyeliner beaten off him sooner or later. But this preposterous story takes us out of our comfort zone as effectively as any science fiction setting, and for the same reason: to let us hear a story we’d otherwise gloss over.

The calm, measured story and calm, measured imagery combine to slow us down to consider how we get stuck despite — and indeed because of — the way we rush around so busily. The wheels spin furiously and we work so hard to get where we think we need to be that we never stop to look around and realize where we are.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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