Sundance 2012 Review: ‘This Must Be The Place’

‘This movie is the perfect way to use Sean Penn’s powers for good and not evil.’

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

This is exactly the kind of weird movie I want to see in Sundance. It’s so weird. And Sean Penn’s usually so serious. This movie is the perfect way to use his powers for good and not evil. He can be serious in his character and the situations are so weird we can all enjoy it.

Cheyenne (Penn) is a goth rock star. He’s more like Edward Scissorhands than Robert Smith with that frail voice and slow walk, but he’s kind. He’s nice to a girl and tries to help a boy ask her out. He’s nice to his wife (Frances McDormand.) He’s just awkward, but he speaks the truth. Like he blurts out “Why is Lady Gaga?” You said it, Cheyenne.

Just watching Cheyenne live his life would be enough for a movie and it is a great first act, but here’s where it gets good. At his father’s funeral, Cheyenne finds out that his dad was on the hunt for a Nazi war criminal. So Cheyenne picks up on the trail! You ask the weirdest possible guy to handle a serious historical issue and that’s a movie!

Cheyenne’s investigation is more like a series of weird encounters, and that works. He goes undercover to get information out of a former schoolteacher, and it’s like a short film about a funny culture clash, this proper old woman and a spiky haired lipsticked dude. They go for Hitchcockian suspense. Will a stranger notice Cheyenne in the shadowy corner of her kitchen with the goose quacking at him? These are the questions This Must Be The Place asks.

I can see where some audiences might find it slowish. Let’s call it deliberate. It’s not boring though. I mean, this festival crowd likes Jim Jarmusch, right? This is like a Jim Jarmusch movie where each random lingering encounter is some sort of abstract performance art.

There’s some wisdom here. Cheyenne is totally honest with himself. He admits to a tattooed gentleman that he was just asking himself whether he likes tattoos as he stared at him. Nobody’s that in touch with their feelings, let alone that honest to share them. Then he ponders that sadness is not compatible with sadness, and nobody “works” anymore because they all consider their jobs an art. Wow!

He’s an authentic character. There’s no phony pretense here. He represents something, something unusual with a purpose that might not fit society, but it’s not just for the sake of being weird (though I love how weird it is). Then Cheyenne plays ping pong with some dudes in a diner. If I haven’t sold you on This Must Be The Place yet, I got nothin’ else.