Every so often a film comes along which offers a truly unique opportunity for actors to cast aside their commonly perceived persona and really show something new. While Sean Penn’s career has been more varied than most, This Must Be The Place shows a side of him we rarely see as the troubled, faded pop star Cheyenne. It’s a beautifully absurd character, and while the initial compulsion may be to laugh at him, very quickly Penn’s commitment to Cheyenne wraps its hands around your heart and draws you in like no other performance this year.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place follows Cheyenne, an apparently briefly influential glam/goth musician (think Penn as Robert Smith from The Cure) trudging along in an existence of somewhat self-imposed obscurity. Following the death of his estranged father, Cheyenne picks up the reins of an unfinished odyssey begun by his father decades earlier. To say anything more would give away many of the wonderful surprises the film has to offer, as each quirky little vignette along the way is as unexpected and delightful as the last. Penn mumbles his way into the lives of a handful of idiosyncratic small town folk, picking up pieces of information to help him complete his father’s mission, with each segment functioning like a chapter in a book. There’s a very Jim Jarmusch vibe to the film (right down to the excellent one scene cameo by Harry Dean Stanton), and fans of and Broken Flowers, and also Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas should place this film right at the top of their must-see list.
While there are a couple of plot threads left dangling with no apparent purpose (another Jarmusch-ian touch), each bizarre moment adds so much to the meandering tone of This Must Be The Place. Sorrentino shows a singular gift with the camera, crafting some majestically fluid shots highlighting the varied landscape of the film, and the great original music from David Byrne (who also cameos) fits perfectly, another piece in this truly odd puzzle of a film. But the keystone is Cheyenne, an emblem of everything that makes this one of the best films of the year. There’s no explicit narrative reason for the character to be as specific as he is, but he is written and performed in such a unique way that the film transcends what could have been a perfectly entertaining piece and becomes something genuinely special. There’s a very fine line between quirky charm and annoying pretension, but Sorretino and Penn, not to mention the top-tier supporting cast and soundtrack, have managed to create the most heart-warming and moving film of 2012 thus far with This Must Be The Place, and there’s unlikely to be anything else quite like it for years to come.