Sometimes, every now and again, you’ll see a film that grants you a new perspective, that lets you look out of the eyes of the protagonist. This is one of those films.
This Must Be the Place is a story about misfits. It’s a story about feeling otherworldly, misunderstood, confused, upset, torn apart, and put back together again, although the feeling is only temporary, in some cases. It’s a film about a goth rock star, a grieving mother, a tortured daughter, a desperate boy, a hard-up woman, a blissful son. There are so many characters and locations, it’s hard to know where to begin, bar going for the obvious.
Cheyenne, played by the insanely talented Sean Penn (Milk), is a former rock star, a son of America with a strong Jewish heritage which he has long abandoned. Having ceased his music career after one of his dark musical numbers caused a pair of boys to kill themselves, he has spent thirty years living in their hometown in Ireland. Each day he goes to the shops, plays some sports, and generally shuffles around while people marvel at his clothing getup – an outfit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like the property of The Cure’s Robert Smith.
Despite his appearance, he’s somewhat popular, followed around by a local girl who’s taken in by their shared gothic style, while her mother waits by the window for a son who walked out one day and never came back. His willingness to take care of the girl, look for a boyfriend for her, and ensure that she’s happy and growing up with the right attitude is emblematic of who Cheyenne is as a person – underneath the Fox News Boogeyman attire, he’s simply a soft-voiced, likeable man who loves everyone and everything.
Unfortunately, he soon receives news that his father is dying, and travels to New York to wish him farewell – Cheyenne’s first journey out of Ireland in three decades. Saying goodbye to his wife (played by the consistently funny Frances McDormand, also of Fargo), he discovers that his father had a single purpose in the later years of his life – to find the Nazi officer who tortured him in Auschwitz. Taking on his father’s goal, Cheyenne picks up a few clues from the amusingly bad-tempered Nazi, Hunter Mordecai (Judd Hirsch), and starts to travel.
His journey across the United States is fascinating. People find him incredibly interesting, and being a very rich rock star (with shares in Tesco, no less), he is able to grant them incredible happiness should they need it. But ultimately, the goal of finding the Nazi who destroyed his father’s ability to enjoy life consumes Cheyenne, and watching this soft-voiced, pleasant musician become angrier and more unstable is a painful and emotional experience.
Does he find happiness? Justice? That’s not for me to say. But what I will say is that you need to see this film. The performances are funny, sad, interesting, and all of the characters have multiple layers to them. Everyone feels human, and contributes to Cheyenne’s journey in a unique way. Although I felt his final transformation was uncalled for and sends the wrong message (expect conformity), it was a long, winding road through a series of emotional stages in the later days of a musician’s life. This is most definitely the place. One you need to visit.