Review by Sophia Satchell Baeza
In This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino has managed to make the premise – a Nazi-hunting road movie through the American desert with Robert Smith – infinitely more exciting than the reality. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is an ageing rock star dressed up like Robert Smith from The Cure who decides to avenge his dead father by travelling around America to hunt down a Nazi, with David Byrne at one point or other making a star appearance. The problem with this film is that, notwithstanding the madball plot, beautiful soundtrack and truly gorgeous cinematography, it just doesn’t work. The film is too ambitious, and by juggling too many disparate elements, fails to make the impact that it could.
There are several things to commend here, and the music is the first. If you like The Talking Heads, the title song or Will Oldham, you’re going to want to watch this regardless. American folk singing troubadour Will Oldham (aka Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy) collaborates with the legend-that-is David Byrne of The Talking Heads to provide a soaring and emotional soundtrack, featuring a beautifully melancholic cover of the title song that may be worth the cinema ticket alone. Firstly, a word about the song – ‘This Must Be the Place’ was the second single from The Talking Heads’ seminal fifth album Speaking in Tongues (1983). It is one of the most beautiful love song of all time, perfectly conveying through broken and unrelated sentiments, the desire to love and be loved in safety – with man being “just an animal looking for a home” and wanting to “share this space for a minute or two”. By choosing to focus the title and soundtrack on this song, Sorrentino can focus on several themes running through his film: absent relationships (particularly that between father and son), the importance of an appreciation of beauty, and rooting oneself in the safety of home. This is all great.
Then there’s the cinematography. Mid slurp of his slush puppy, Cheyenne tells the heavy-built but sensitive tattoo artist he’s been talking to in a dingy bar that “life is full of beautiful things”. It certainly is and the camera shows us this beauty in gorgeously light-drenched images and sweeping panoramic shots of the United States. Sorrentino’s America is one of suspended beauty, with a timeless nostalgia for old saloon bars with decaying jukeboxes, dirty motels and eternal stretches of dusty desert. He catches light at its best and at its worst – bleeding pink skies over the American landscape, early-morning sunshine saturating a dusty path as Cheyenne makes his early get out, and afternoon light over a woman in a red bikini floating in a beach-blue pool. Yet much like the music, these panoramic views often overwhelm the film. The beauty of life which one imagines Cheyenne is seeing again for the first time does not come across to the viewer. We see the beauty but we don’t feel it, because we’re too bogged down by everything else.
So what’s wrong with This Must Be The Place? Personally, the Nazi sub-plot feels disingenuous. It’s never properly explored, so that when we get to the crucial end scene, we fail to feel the true emotional weight of Cheyenne’s discovery. Sean Penn is impressive in the central role, and manages to capture the child-like innocence of the frail rocker well. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel irritated by his mannered, drug-hazed depression-lisp. His speech dragged and dragged as a result, until I felt like screaming, “Sean, ENUNCIATE!” The other actors were less good, except for the ever-talented Frances McDormand, who though underused, played the ballsy rocker’s wife perfectly. There are moments of subtle comedy throughout the film, yet often they’re built up only to fall.
The film is out in cinemas on 6 April.
New Film Review by Sophia Satchell Baeza