Robert Smith, Nazi Hunter was, I hope, the working title for Paolo Sorrentino’s sensational English language debut, an eccentric little dramedy which finds Sean Penn channeling The Cure’s frizzy-haired frontman for a cross-country odyssey to avenge his dead father. It sounds odd, I know, but of all the film’s I’ve seen this year, and certainly of all the films playing at the London Film Festival, none have got under my skin quite as much as This Must Be The Place…
Cheynne (Penn) is an ex-goth-rocker living with his doting wife Jane (Frances McDormand; terrific) in an isolated Dublin mansion, spending his days quietly shuffling around its expansive halls and corridors. He’s an introvert, shut-off from the world, but not without his reasons. Several years ago two depressed teenagers took his mournful lyrics seriously and decided to commit suicide. After learning of his father’s death, Cheynne returns home to New York to track down the Nazi who humiliated him during WWII. The main bulk of the story chronicles the musician’s journey across America, observing the lives he touches before he can lay his father’s soul to rest. It’s less wincingly cute than that description suggests, but Sorrentino’s film is undoubtedly the stuff of fairytales…
His craft, as in previous features The Consequences Of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008), is flawless, but the director inevitably brings something of a sightseer’s eye to this dreamlike America, which is even less recognizable than the utopia we always see advertised by airline companies; the fêted Land Of Opportunity. Sorrentino is undoubtedly a tourist in this land, but then so is Cheynne, who has not visited the US in over thirty years. No doubt its surfaces have shifted in his memory, and Sorrentino’s stylish directorial sensibilities (often calling to mind an early Scorsese) more than make up for the backpacking feel of certain scenes. The discovery of an oversized pistachio would seem like an advertisement in any other film, but here it’s one of many curious tangents the director embarks upon…
This is what I love most about the film; its interest in the uninteresting. Sorrentino’s camera frequently becomes distracted by people and places, and he seems willing to let it – and Cheynne – explore them. For example, there’s a scene in a diner where Cheynne teaches two guys how to play ping pong. It holds no bearing on the plot but somehow this vignette feels part of a bigger picture. If my memory serves me right this is also the scene where Cheynne informs a waitress, “We go from an age where we say ‘My life will be that’, to an age where we say ‘That’s life.‘” In a moment which appears incidental the film strikes one of its truest notes, acknowledging the complacency people seem to experience in their late 30’s, accepting the mundane as their reality; just like everybody else.
Sorrentino’s understanding of music is vital to keeping these tangents in check, as various covers of the titular song (in case you didn’t know, it’s a Talking Heads track) play throughout the film. One particularly moving rendition is delivered by a boy who Cheynne meets upon his travels, and agrees to play guitar for, despite the youngster’s insistence that Arcade Fire are the original artist. Of course, the best rendition comes courtesy of David Byrne, as Sorrentino dedicates an entire set-piece to a live performance of the song. The track acts as a link between all of the director’s fanciful detours, and its lyrics are the glue which hold his hodge-podge mosaic together.
Perhaps the most important element, however, is Penn himself, whose incredible central performance lends the film real heart. He’s an actor of inimitable depth and range, but is often accused of over-acting. For the most part that’s a hard claim to argue, yet, as evidenced in films such as The Assassination Of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller, 2004), he’s also capable of turning in quieter, more nuanced performances, and that’s the level he’s working on here. Cheynne is somewhat like a child in a man’s body, but it’s the toll of man’s life which has reverted him to this state. He carries on his shoulders faded fame and crushing guilt, walking through life with a (comically) dour expression. His wrinkles show up through the layers of mascara. Penn is showing his age, but with it he has has discovered a new sense of adventure within his craft. In Cheynne he’s found a remarkably unusual protagonist and invested him with truth. It’s a really impressive turn.
Given its constituent elements there’s absolutely no reason why the film should work, and not all of it does (the meandering tone sometimes borders on self-indulgence, waxing lyrical about subjects it doesn’t fully understand), but This Must Be The Place took me by surprise as one of the most confident, unique and exciting dramas of recent years. In a perfect world it would be attracting awards consideration, but Sorrentino’s film isn’t obvious enough for the Academy, and Penn’s dialed-down performance will throw them off-guard. Never mind. I get the impression that this one will grow in stature over time. I still wish they’d called it Robert Smith, Nazi Hunter though.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Stars: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Harry Dean Stanton
Runtime: 118 minutes