‘This Must Be the Place’ Shows It’s Never Too Late to Come of Age

In a cinema landscape populated by many arrested-adolescent characters (Couples Retreat, Horrible Bosses, This is 40), it’s refreshing when a film thoughtfully raises the age limit in a coming-of-age story, making way for harder, more complex questions. This Must Be the Place is that sort of film.

This Must Be the Place stars Sean Penn (in a riveting performance) as Cheyenne, a retired pop star living in relative obscurity on a country estate near Dublin. Despite the admitted excesses of his pop life, Cheyenne is fully committed to Jane (Frances MacDormand), his wife of 35 years. The excesses have ostensibly taken their toll, however, as Cheyenne — despite physically resembling Robert Smith of the Cure — seems loosely based on Ozzy Osbourne, hobbling through his life in a near-childlike daze.

On learning about the impending death of his father, Cheyenne returns to his native United States. Cheyenne’s father’s posthumous wish is for Cheyenne to seek revenge on a Nazi war criminal hiding out somewhere in America.

This Must Be the Place is a joint Italian-Irish-French production, and the screenplay, co-written by director Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, relies on restricted narration, not unlike the classic The Big Sleep, to take the audience through the story with Cheyenne. This works especially well in the second movement of the film, when it switches gears from a character study to more of a mystery as Cheyenne tracks down the former Auschwitz guard.

A striking aspect of This Must Be the Place is its sheer visual beauty, bestowed on it by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (whose previous credits include Marco Amenta’s acclaimed The Sicilian Girl). Bigazzi brings to life the beauty of the environs in which the story unfolds; for example, Bigazzi’s Dublin is ethereally crowned by the cloudlike Aviva Stadium, his New Mexico is a sun-kissed cradle of arid warmth, and his Utah is a symphonic collaboration of yellow and green. These stunning backdrops are reminiscent of such Italian films as Il vento fa il suo giro (Giorgio Diritti, 2005) or La regazza del lago (Andrea Molaioli, 2007), where stories that may be grim do not negate the beauty of the natural world. As Cheyenne himself notes at one point, “Life is full of beautiful things.”

In addition to the film’s visual beauty is its soundtrack, written by David Byrne and Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy). The film’s title is taken from a Talking Heads song, and Byrne himself makes a cameo. Byrne’s cameo includes visuals of one of his groundbreaking “Playing the Building” installations, which serves as a backdrop for an intense conversation between Byrne and Cheyenne over the difference between an artistic career and the rather short-lived, disposable output of a pop star.

If there is a problem with This Must Be the Place, it’s that the story itself meanders. The Dublin-set exposition carries on for quite a long time before Cheyenne gets to New York, where even more time passes until the search for the Nazi war criminal is initiated. There are characters whose presence is confusing, but not in an excusable, MacGuffin sort of way that adds intricacy to the mystery.

Thematically, This Must Be the Place explores topics befitting a character coming of age later in life: gratitude, fidelity, revenge, justice, mercy, beauty, identity, purpose, redemption. Each of these is treated in a way that is subtle, ambiguous and avoids being pedantic. In short, these grown-up themes are given the philosophical space they deserve. This Must Be the Place moves with amusement and bemusement, so the full weight of its thematic heft is not necessarily evident until the film’s closing credits start to roll and the viewer has time to digest everything that just transpired on screen.

At one point in the film, Cheyenne makes what he feels is a tragic realization, inspiring another character to attempt to console Cheyenne by saying, “Better late than never.” Within the framework of This Must Be the Place, that typically trite aphorism resounds with intense power and insight.

The DVD contains no special features beyond chapter navigation, closed-captioning and optional Spanish subtitles. This Must Be the Place is rated R for language, some frank sexual discussion, and historic images of the Holocaust.

RATING 7 / 10