At the center of Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place stands a sad clown named Cheyenne (Sean Penn), a retired rock star whose androgynous lipstick, face paint, and raven-black hair are garishly incongruous with his middle-aged hobble and cheek wrinkles. Cheyenne lives in a Dublin manor, having immigrated years earlier with his kid sister-like spouse (Frances McDormand). Yet despite his independent wealth, enviable cosmetic prowess, and legion of ego-stroking young fans (one of whom inexplicably lives with him), he remains “a tad depressed,” in his own laconic parlance. He eventually reveals two unprocessed traumas from which this strife potentially derives—namely, his estrangement from his Holocaust-survivor father and the suicide of two teens years earlier while under the influence of his music. But Cheyenne’s aphoristic dialogue elsewhere also suggests that he’s more generally an idealist adrift in a bracingly cynical world. He quietly rebukes an apologetic waitress who brings him an overcooked burger by saying, “The problem is, we go from an age where we say, ‘My life will be that,’ to an age where we say, ‘That’s life.’”
This embittered idealism, the space around which Sorrentino starts agitating with cartoony scenarios and images after Cheyenne visits his dying father in the United States, complicates the protagonist. While he visually suggests the Cure’s Robert Smith with smatterings of Genesis P-Orridge and Edward Scissorhands, Cheyenne’s spiritual forefathers are the largely unamused and ignorantly adolescent males of screwball comedy, such as Cary Grant’s paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby or, less classically, Bruno S.‘s luckless German émigré in Strozek. Cheyenne is far less gullible than either, but he’s a similarly deluded pilgrim providing a tonal counterpoint for the flamboyantly surreal landscape through which he wanders. A screwball drama-cum-road trip, This Must Be the Place eventually evolves into a cross-country search for the still-living SS guard responsible for humiliating Cheyenne’s father at Auschwitz, a quest through which the main character encounters situational mishaps (an SUV spontaneously explodes) and logorrheic loons (such as an elderly teacher with a pet goose, and a cocky Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch). Cheyenne perfectly balances all of this externalized absurdity with his internalized absurdity; the more illogical his environment becomes, the harder he clenches the hope that his piacular mission will atone for his mostly imagined past sins.
The film’s harsh color palette, free-associative imagery, and vertiginously mobile camera are thus quite daringly anti-expressionistic. We don’t see the world from Cheyenne’s mopey, if rather morally conventional, point of view, but from an oppositional, omniscient perspective that delights in challenging the protagonist’s naïve ideologies. Endless crane shots and purposeful grammatical “errors” reject both the traditional editing axis (people in conversation occasionally appear to be facing the same direction) and the common hierarchy of narrative prioritization: Rather than hovering over intensely emoting faces, the camera often bum-rushes the nearest window or piece of furniture. The plot, meanwhile, is stretched and squashed into impish, Syd Field-defiling unevenness, starting with 40 minutes of character scenery before hurrying through five minutes of inciting incidents. And every sensual detail is exaggerated to the point of giddy artificiality: A slide projector rotating horrific Holocaust photographs emits sounds like a paper cutter’s blade being sharpened; a baby buffalo roaming outside Cheyenne’s hotel window in Utah resembles an orange-dyed plush doll. Like with most screwball milieus, the objective of this exuberance is to wear down and puncture the protagonist’s dour, unsustainable outlook, and not to inhabit it. Doesn’t all this odd strength deserve to be faced with confidence?
The character eventually breaks free of his glam-pampered coma, but not until making peace with the bizarrely transformative connective tissue of existence—the amorphous context by which someone’s home can cast a long shadow in which threats to the very idea of home readily find refuge. Cheyenne is hip to life’s ironies from the movie’s start: His favorite dinner-table story involves his firefighter wife falling asleep with a still-flaming marijuana cigarette. But the manner in which all people and actions contain their own synonyms and antonyms eludes him, forestalling self-forgiveness.
Cheyenne believes that one must struggle to achieve cosmic balance, while all the evidence suggests that it’s more a force to which one surrenders. After he chides a chauvinistic friend for erotically fixating on women with leg casts, for example, the unlikely fetishistic icon of wrapped female calves multiplies in front of him: Plaster of Paris turns to leather “fuck me” boots, signs of physical vulnerability turn to symbols of status and haute couture empowerment, and screwball becomes a kind of realism that’s hotly attuned to the roundabout, give-and-take rhythms of the universe. By the time Sorrentino’s third act argues that all crimes possess their own disciplinary actions as well, the director has earned the contrived fantasy of the film’s parting shot. This Must Be the Place believes in maturity, but only as a freely continual process of acceptance. “Getting there” is not only all the fun; it’s all there is to it.