It’s hard to take Sean Penn’s Kathy Griffin–does–Edward Scissorhands makeup job in This Must Be the Place seriously, but that’s kind of the point. Playing an aging retired rocker named Cheyenne, who spends his days lounging around his enormous Irish estate and/or hanging out at the mall, the actor speaks in a soft, halting squeak of a voice that suggests nothing so much as a young child afraid of being found out.
Not coincidentally, it also echoes the psychologically broken mutterings of real-life rock survivors like Ozzy Osbourne and Brian Wilson; Cheyenne, too, we learn (if we hadn’t already assumed), has done his share of drugs and drink and had his share of breakdowns, one of them apparently after two teenage boys killed themselves listening to his melancholy pop songs. The sad songs, Cheyenne tells us in a rare moment of anguished candor, were never from the heart; he only sang them because they made him money. We can’t pin this guy down, and maybe he wants it that way. His heavily made-up face is a Kabuki mask of hidden hurts and shames, a protective device to go with his hesitant delivery. Somewhere inside, we suspect, is a non-adult: He grew old, but he never grew up.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has a fondness for these types of in-between characters who inhabit limbolike environments. In The Consequences of Love, he made an entire movie about a mafia bagman living in a hotel waiting for periodic bags of cash to be delivered, a spectral presence haunting the corridors of a transient world. Cheyenne is also a kind of ghost, even after he leaves his estate and heads back home to the U.S., to visit his dying, Orthodox Jewish father, whom we find out, somewhat shockingly, was a dedicated Nazi-hunter. Even more shocking, Cheyenne, still in full-on rock garb, decides to go after his now late father’s lifelong prey, a German guard from Auschwitz hiding out somewhere in the Heartland. And so this bizarre, mannered, borderline metaphorical character strikes out for the territory, journeying out West to try to find a man he has never met and whose new name he does not know. He doesn’t even know if the man is alive.
An unparalleled visual stylist with a singular eye for composition, color, and movement, Sorrentino shoots Cheyenne’s journey in telling, lush fragments that embrace the surreal mystery of the road. The skies are filled with otherworldly clouds. The empty vistas feel like they came out of someone’s dream; even random signs burst with strange bits of color and shadow when seen from just the right angle. When Americans like Jim Jarmusch make road movies, they seek to understand and equalize; when foreigners like Sorrentino (or Wim Wenders, or Michelangelo Antonioni) do it, they gaze in wonder, allowing the imagery of the country to maintain its odd, unknowable, mythic power.
A lot of people will not like This Must Be the Place at all. That’s certainly a shame, but also understandable to some extent: Penn’s performance is just too weird, the story too far-fetched, the tone too hard to gauge. (This is a movie, after all, in which Judd Hirsch plays a Nazi-hunter.) Sorrentino allows the absurdity of Cheyenne’s very presence to coexist with the obscene memory of the Holocaust: So much of the film is played for laughs, and then suddenly we’ll get a poetic, Bergmanesque voice-over about the humiliations in the camps. And yet there’s purpose in this madness. The director seems to be drawing a line from the horror of the war years to the infantilism of the Boomers and rock; the father lost his innocence, and the son froze his. And so Cheyenne seeks now to shed his made-up identity. “Are you out there trying to find yourself or something?” his wife (Frances McDormand) jokingly asks him on the phone. “I’m not trying to find myself,” the rocker replies, bemusedly. “I’m in New Mexico, not India.” This isn’t a journey of self-discovery, but rather an exorcism. And the ghost is Cheyenne himself.