“This Must Be the Place”
It’s really difficult to critique one of those existentialist, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, campy, farcical, satirical, surrealistic zeitgeists. It’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not a documentary, but more of a wry commentary. It’s fiction, yes, but it also references cultural realities. You just have to decide if you’re going to accept it on its own unique terms or not. If you’re not, well, just don’t bother to go see it. If you are, then you’re in for a very specific, particular kind of viewing experience that intentionally strays from convention.
Sean Penn plays Cheyenne , an aging ex-rock star living in a remote castle in Ireland with his wife of 35 years, played with practiced affectation by Frances McDormand. Cheyenne has made his millions, and hasn’t done anything useful in a long time. He shuffles around quietly like some geezer on pain medication, slow to react, usually not smiling, but still wearing his exorbitant make-up and unruly long hair from when he was a rock star. He keeps blowing stray strands of overtrussed hair away from his mouth. He occasionally plays handball in the empty swimming pool in the backyard with his wife, but she’s in much better physical shape, and either beats him unmercifully or allows him to win, but either way, she’s in charge. She also seems to be in charge of whatever minimal sexual relationship they still enjoy; it’s more about pleasuring her than the other way around. She, not wanting to disassociate from the rest of the world, remains an active community firefighter, and in her spare time putzes with their Volkswagen. Their daughter, continuously playing the bored goth-punk role, hangs out with her Dad in the mall, actively discouraging any hint of unwelcome advance from any eager employees of their favorite coffee shop. Cheyenne is usually pulling some wheeled luggage, in which he carries…maybe some groceries. Maybe nothing at all. He pretends to be interested in the stock market, but it obviously holds no real fascination for him. The music world has long since passed him by. He literally doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Things finally change when Cheyenne receives notice that his aging father is near death, back in the United States , and though Cheyenne hasn’t spoken to him in 30 years---he no longer remembers why----he decides he needs to try to speak to him one last time.
Alas, he arrives too late. But while being around some family members again, Cheyenne learns that his father, an Auschwitz survivor, carried a lifelong grudge against a particular prison guard who, he was convinced, had taken refuge in the United States and changed his identity. This sets Cheyenne off on his quixotic quest to find his father’s tormentor, as a kind of last homage to his neglected memory.
Now this deliberately-paced film becomes a kind of travel diary/pilgrimage, while Cheyenne rubs elbows with “real” people, at truck stops and gas stations along the Interstates, like he hadn’t done in years. He’s rarely recognized as an aging rock star, anyway, so he can just be anonymously weird and nobody seems to mind. He speaks in this toneless little squeaky voice and says things like, “That’s not really true, but thanks for being nice.” He even teams up with an angry old Nazi-hunter to actually find the former Auschwitz guard, who by now is so old and feeble that persecuting him seems to be a lamentable and unsatisfying irony in itself.
This film is very unlikely to have a popular following, unless it somehow latches on as the current campiness of choice. This enigmatic actor Sean Penn delivers to us his most enigmatic character portrayal ever. If a tree falls in the forest with no one around, does it still make a sound? And if someone happens along afterwards, would they say, “This Must Be the Place”?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas