The Son and Hair
Sometimes I'm not sure that my habit of routinely referring to the local Picturehouse cinema as 'the arthouse' is wholly justified – quite often it does end up showing the same films as the coffeeshop and other multiplexes. For example, The Iron Lady, The Artist, The Best Exotic Whatever and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (no thanks) have all played at both, while Marley starts at the Picturehouse this weekend. (Usually, given the choice, I follow the wise advice of Dr K and support the smaller cinema, so cue guilt from me for having already seen the reggae biopic at a larger venue.) And the so-called arthouse cinema's latest classic revival of a film by a noted European auteur is not Orpheus or Bande a Part, but a blood-drenched and wildly excessive piece of heavy-metal SF satire that spawned a relatively major franchise (needless to say I have already bought my ticket).
Then again, it does often show movies I can't imagine the coffeeshop giving any kind of a chance, big names and quality or not. Actually, I'm not sure if Sean Penn still counts as a big name or not – he's still a well-known figure, but I'm not sure whether that's due to his acting or his penchant for shooting his mouth off about the various political causes he's taken up. But he's still making movies, such as Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place. To describe this film as off-beat is a major understatement.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a fifty-year-old Goth rock star living a life of aimless bafflement in suburban Dublin, for reasons the film does not address directly (but which may have something to do with the fact this film was part-funded by the Irish Film Board). He and his wife (Frances McDormand) seem happy enough, his weekly visits to a local graveyard notwithstanding. But then news arrives from America: Cheyenne's father is dying.
Cheyenne and his father have had a distant relationship for many years, but something still moves Cheyenne to take up the obsession that has dominated his father's later years – incarcerated in Auschwitz as a youth, the old man was fixated on finding the man he considered the greatest of his tormentors amongst the camp guards. Pausing only to consult with veteran Nazi-hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), and – for somewhat less obvious reasons – art-rock legend David Byrne (David Byrne – duh!), Cheyenne sets out to complete his father's quest…
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking: not another middle-aged Goth hunting a Nazi war criminal comedy drama road movie! 'Fraid so, folks – but it's not as straightforward as that sounds. Seeing this film, the over-riding impression I took away with me was of Sean Penn's performance, which is extraordinary. I'm not saying it's necessarily extraordinarily good, but it's very, very striking. Penn really goes for the Goth look, with fright-wig hair and full make-up practically throughout the movie. He looks ostentatiously ridiculous even when not dressed to play sport (as he is in a couple of scenes), but Penn ups the ante even further with an effete, almost wheedling vocal performance and a whole array of mannered physical tics. He doesn't so much just grab your attention, as wrest it away from you and run off howling.
The wild over-the-topness of this is particularly strange, as there's a lot more drama than there is comedy in the course of this film. I suppose this isn't that surprising, given the focus of the plot, but there's a constant tension between the look-at-me strangeness of what Penn is doing and the genuine emotions at the heart of a lot of the script. Cheyenne is surrounded by people living their lives and coping with their own emotional problems – unrequited love, trouble with their parents, bereavement – and these are, on the whole, sincerely written and convincing played by the large supporting cast. The film is much more about these people and their effect on Cheyenne than it is his search for the war criminal.
That said, the film isn't completely po-faced and does contain some very funny scenes, but the memorable ones are more serious in tone – most striking is a discussion between Penn and Byrne in which, for the first time, Penn's emotional detachment crumbles and we get a glimpse of the man within for the first time. This is when we start to understand why he still maintains the same outrageously affected appearance he had when he was a teenager – it is a mechanism for hiding from the world, from time, and from himself, and the rest of the film is about how he slowly reconnects with all these things.
This is a visually brilliant film, with impeccably composed shots and lustrous cinematography throughout – the southern USA looks gorgeous on the screen, suburban Dublin perhaps less so. For a while I wondered if this wasn't just another showy-offy film like (possibly) There Will Be Blood, with Penn going into method overload and the cameraman and director running amuck in their own departments too. But in the end I'm not sure if that's the case. The road-movie element is a little bit hackneyed, and the quest plotline also far from original, but the character studies and scenes along the way add up to create a quietly moving composite portrait of human emotional frailty.
Even so, I'm not sure This Must Be The Place isn't a bit less than the sum of its parts, for all that it's more about the journey than the denouement. And perhaps the filmmakers felt the same thing – the very end of the film feels like an attempt to be enigmatic and provoke discussion amongst the audience. I'm not sure what it means; the obvious answer has the drawback of seeming wildly implausible, but the film doesn't point towards any others.
Nevertheless, this is an engaging and entertaining film, even if it never quite completely comes together as a coherent whole. Anyone going solely by appearances is probably not going to take it seriously – which is a shame, because I think it deserves at least that much.