Anchor Bay // 2011 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 26th, 2013
A former rock star is hunting down a Nazi criminal. This could be his greatest hit.
This Must Be The Place has one of the most effective posters in the history of filmmaking. It features only star Sean Penn's face, but his normally close-cropped locks have been replaced by long, dark hair. His lips are a bright red, and the make-up around his eyes is heavy and obvious. His name is above the title, This Must Be The Place. It works so perfectly because many viewers still remember Sean Penn as the pretty boy of the '80s, and while nature has not ravaged his face enough to put him in the mug shot hall of fame, this poster emphasizes that he's not the pretty boy he once was. More importantly, he appears to be in drag. The combo of unattractive face plus drag immediately creates some expectations: If someone as famous as Penn is willing to do this to his face and make it the poster for the film, by golly that film had better be something to justify that faith. This Must Be The Place is ultimately as weird as its poster promises, but that might not be enough to please most viewers.
Cheyenne (Sean Penn, Gangster Squad) is a rock star who made all his money in the '80s at the height of gothpop. Now, he lives in Dublin off his royalties, and though he's largely given up the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, he still keeps his eyeliner around. He jets off to New York when he finds out that his estranged father is ill, but arrives after he died. Cheyenne learns, however, that his father was a Holocaust survivor and had spent many years tracking down one of his torturers. He'd even located the man who'd made his life in Auschwitz hell, but couldn't confront him. With no better prospects for his life, Cheyenne takes on the quest to confront (and kill) this now-successful man for his father's sake.
In case it wasn't obvious already, This Must Be The Place is a profoundly weird film. It features a Robert Smith lookalike (played by a famous actor) traveling across America to exact revenge for his Holocaust-survivor father. It's also the first English-language film by an Italian director, so we have the added layer of the European view of America doubling the return-of-the-prodigal view of America as well. One feels shades of both Depeche Mode's 101 and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about This Must Be The Place is the fact that it plays all this strangeness with a deadpan sense of seriousness. Cheyenne is not the kind of character that we expect him to be; this is not the Robert Smith of South Park. No, Cheyenne is a complex character who doesn't fit into the world he was born into. He achieved his success early in life with all the drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll he could stand. Now he's bereft of meaning and purpose, and outside among outsiders. The temptation for most filmmakers would be to give his life meaning and purpose through revenge, but This Must Be The Place doesn't opt for simple "My life has meaning now that I can avenge my father" narrative tricks. Instead, Cheyenne is the center of a story that drifts across America, taking stock of its characters, but also the beauty and weirdness that attend any journey across our strange and wonderful country. That may be This Must Be The Place's greatest strength -- to make American strange and beautiful again even for those of us who have seen countless images of it.
This Must Be The Place (Blu-ray) is an excellent release, at least as far as the presentation is concerned. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top notch. The film's cinematography has won awards, and the reason for that is showcased perfectly here. Detail is strong throughout, from closeups on Penn's makeup-ravaged face to wide open exteriors in Utah. Colors are perfectly saturated with excellent skin tones, and black levels are stable and deep. Unsurprisingly for a film about a musician (and featuring a score by Talking Heads alum David Byrne), the DTS-HD 5.1 is superb. Music is well balanced with the clear dialogue, and there's a good combo of ambient effects and score used to fill out the soundscape.
The extras are where this release falls apart. We get nothing, which is a shame. I understand the director isn't American, which probably makes things harder, but this flick got a lot of press at Cannes and features a big-name actor, so it's really disappointing to get nothing, not even a trailer. It's even more disappointing given the fact that a slightly longer cut of the film (118 instead of 111) exists, and even a trailer would help this release.
The film itself is of course a bit of an enigma. Sean Penn undeniably gives a memorable performance, but I'm not sure the film makes much of an impression beyond that. The film tries and tries to do something different, and while that's laudable it also keeps the film from going the route where viewers are satisfied by catharsis at the end. The film rewards its 111-minute investment with good performances and beautiful images, but many viewers will not appreciate this particular view of old, weird America.
This Must Be The Place is an interesting film that's risky for everyone involved. Sean Penn puts himself out there in a way few actors would dare, both physically and emotionally. Director Paolo Sorrentino tries his first English film. The result is a film that combines beautiful shots of America with a wonderful performance by Penn. Whether that's enough to hold an audience's attention is a difficult thing to judge. I can say that the lack of extras makes this a hard disc to recommend for anything more than a rental despite the excellent audiovisual presentation. It's definitely worth checking out for fans of Penn and those looking for an adventurous take on the revenge/road-movie narrative.
Weird, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R