The oddball charm of a Nazi-hunting goth

Packed full of intriguing characters, offbeat drama-comedy This Must Be The Place even manages to make Sean Penn likeable.

In recent years, Sean Penn has become Hollywood’s most prolific political poseur. Whether he’s dragging displaced people out of the flood waters of New Orleans or holding press conferences in the Falkland Islands, Penn is now always on hand, with a camera crew in tow, to make a rather inelegant lunge at the moral high ground.

When it was announced he was going to be working with Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director whose international reputation lay solely on his political thriller, Il Divo - which Penn awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes, when he headed the jury in 2008 - one wondered what sort of soapbox Penn was hoping to mount with this collaboration. In a rather pleasant surprise, the film that has materialised, This Must Be the Place, is an ambitious and sprawling piece of oddball cinema, in which Penn himself is remarkably likeable.

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a faded goth rockstar in a state of crippling arrested development. Living in tax-exempt exile in an Irish suburb, he spends his days skulking around shopping centres and hanging out with a moody teenage skater girl called Mary (Eve Hewson). Although he claims to have abandoned showbusiness because he felt his gloomy music only gave depressed kids more to feel sad about, Cheyenne is himself trapped in a cul-de-sac of self-pity that has gone on unabated since his youth. With a look lifted from The Cure’s Robert Smith, he is every bit the dejected adolescent who never grew up.

Despite all this, Cheyenne is an oddly magnetic character. He attracts not just troubled souls like Mary, but a fat lothario who delights in recounting his innumerable conquests; a gormless waiter, who Cheyenne hopes will win over Mary; and his wife Jane (Frances McDormand), a pragmatic firewoman with whom he has an unflinchingly sound marriage. Far from painting a picture of a defiant, misunderstood emo, Sorrentino’s protagonist is a loveable oddity with a heart of gold, who wants nothing more than to conquer his demons.

A means of escaping his life-long rut comes in a rather unexpected form. His father, from whom he has been estranged since he first donned eye-liner, is dying. Arriving back in New York too late to attempt a reconciliation, Cheyenne is forced to look for another way to pay his respects. It turns out that his father, a holocaust survivor, had spent much of his life trying to track down one of the Nazi soldiers who had tormented him in Auschwitz. Borrowing a pick-up truck from a smarmy Texan he meets in a Japanese restaurant, Cheyenne sets out on the open road in search of the elusive war criminal.

Cheyenne’s odyssey is at once bizarre, morose, and funny. It is both a warm and fuzzy journey of self-discovery, and a sardonic, by-proxy, revenge fantasy, and these two disparate plot lines continually jostle and displace one another. Throughout This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino struggles to keep this careering vehicle from going into a complete tailspin, but purely by virtue of its own oddity, it manages to hold itself together and keep its emotional core intact.

Sweeping through the American Midwest, we are treated to a tapestry of strange and intriguing characters. From an intensely astute old man in a road-side diner, who claims to be the inventor of the wheelie suitcase, to Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), a professional Nazi hunter who joins Cheyenne in the final part of his journey, they all seem borne of the same surreal, indie-flick universe. But they are also deeply human figures, merely living off the beaten track.

The film’s closing scenes are perplexing, and ultimately fail to tie up the plot’s innumerable loose ends. Ironically, This Must Be the Place never really arrives at one specific destination, but has enough eccentric charm to keep you along for the ride.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for This Must Be The Place:

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