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sean penn: the time, the event

deane williams: paolo sorrentino’s this must be the place

Deane Williams is Associate Professor, Film and Television Studies, Monash University, Melbourne. He is Editor of Studies in Documentary Film and his books include Australian Post-War Documentary Films: An Arc of Mirrors (2008) and, with Brian McFarlane, Michael Winterbottom (2009). He is working on a number of books including The Films of Sean Penn for Columbia UP/Wallflower Press (2013) and editing (with Zoe Druick) The Grierson Effect (2013).

Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, This Must Be the Place Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, This Must Be the Place
REVIEWS OF PAOLO SORRENTINO’S THIS MUST BE THE PLACE HAVE MADE MUCH OF SEAN PENN’S PERFORMANCE AS CHEYENNE, IN THE MAIN, DUE TO HIS APPEARANCE AS AN AGED GOTH ROCK IDOL MODELLED ON THE CURE’S ROBERT SMITH, REPLETE WITH TEASED BLUE-BLACK HAIR AND FULL MAKE-UP, BUT ALSO HIS LILTING, MEASURED, ALMOST SQUEAKY, INTONATION.

Of course much of this is a reaction to the now familiar media characterisation of Penn as the wild Method actor on the fringes of Hollywood and by a series of hyper-masculine roles such as Jimmy Markham in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Matthew Poncelet in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (1995) or Danny McGavin in Dennis Hopper’s Colors (1988). Alongside these manly portrayals we have been witness to a litany of offscreen performances outside the movies including run-ins with photographers: the much publicised divorce(s) from Robyn Wright-Penn, the visits to Iraq, meetings with American enemies President Raúl Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, legends of Penn sleeping with a pistol under his pillow in a resettlement camp in Haiti and a host of male friendships with the likes of Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Duvall, and Jack Nicholson, Harry Crews, Charles Bukowski and Charlie Sheen.

At the same time, he has performed a range of curious roles that may undermine the construction of Penn as the masculine bad boy. Think Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), Samuel J Bicke in Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), Jeff Spicoli in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Emmer Ray in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and, most hysterically, David Kleinfeld in Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993). In all these films Penn has acted against type, well against the type found in Mystic River and Dead Man Walking, at least.

Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, This Must Be the Place Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, This Must Be the Place
In many instances Penn has played naive outsiders, characters caught up in their own times and locales, often unable to escape their own fates. Similarly, Cheyenne’s wisdom lurks beneath the façade of a simple, emotionally fragile Goth who is able to clearly see the truth of situations without the encumbrances of worldliness or sophistication. One of the best scenes in This Must Be the Place is when Cheyenne meets Tattoo Mike (Gordon Michaels) in a bar in Bad Ax, Michigan and these two outsiders exchange opinions about alcohol, tattooing and the joys of gratitude in a childlike reverie, the kind of languid, episodic conversation emblematic of Penn’s performance in this film. Frances McDormand as Cheyenne’s partner Jane is a confident, assertive yet loving character, absolutely at ease with the world, consistently wooping him at handball; but in essence operating to support and contrast with Cheyenne’s simplicity and innocent directness.

Similar characters populate the films Penn has directed. In The Indian Runner (1991), Viggo Mortenson plays Frank Roberts, a tearaway who returns from the war in Vietnam. Unable to find a place for himself in the world he left, Frank causes irreparable damage to his family and hometown. John Booth (David Morse) in The Crossing Guard is released from jail for killing the child of Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson), only to provide Gale with the direction and wisdom he needs to escape his life of alcoholic rage and sadness. Nicholson plays Jerry Black in Penn’s The Pledge, another character unable to deal with the horror of a child’s murder who descends into obsession and destruction. 2007’s Into the Wild focuses on real-life character Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who gave up his comfortable middle-class life for one of adventure that led to eventual starvation and death in the wilderness of Alaska.

Sean Penn, Tree of Life Sean Penn, Tree of Life


Similarly, it is possible to see This Must Be the Place in relation to one of the major concerns of Penn’s own directorial efforts in films such as The Indian Runner and more recently, Into the Wild—the concern with place and how it shapes, contains and characterises individuals. Penn’s films can also be understood as a distinct genre that takes as its subject not only outsider figures but also the very specific locales and historical moments from which they emerge. The Indian Runner may be discussed in relation to the whole ‘badlands’ mythology that has been popularised in various renditions of the story of Charlie Starkweather and mid-west America. The Crossing Guard belongs to a tradition of imagining Los Angeles that includes Cassavetes’ work (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Love Streams, A Woman Under the Influence). The Pledge is confined to Nevada and returns to the Native American mythologies introduced in The Indian Runner. Into the Wild, covering numerous locales, is principally concerned with Alaska and all that place signifies in the American imaginary.

This concern spills out into many of the films in which Penn acted including This Must Be the Place. Sorrentino’s film takes its title from the Talking Heads song which has as its subtitle “naive melody,” an instructive connection for the film and Penn’s performance. In a host of performances and in his own directorial works Sean Penn has oscillated between twin poles; the rendering of place and awkward, naive outsiders’ journeys to find themselves. Of course, many are taken by road.

Taking into account Penn’s directorial oeuvre we can understand many of his performances in the same way. His Academy Award-winning performance as Jimmy Markham in Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Mystic River is of a person unable to escape not only his past, but also the intricate community of Dorchester, Boston; the locale that Lehane has written about in a series of novels. Milk relies on San Francisco for its setting. Hometown girl, B Ruby Rich, described the premiere screening in nostalgic terms, in particular Penn’s rendering of the title character:

“the film started and silence descended, as the audience began to realise what a house of mirrors we had entered. As Sean Penn brilliantly disappeared into the body, voice and mannerisms of Harvey Milk, it got harder and harder to separate the world on the screen from the one we lived in” (“Ghosts of an Ideal World,” The Guardian, Jan 16 2009).

We could also think of Penn’s David Kleinfeld, the coke-snorting, aspirational, corrupt lawyer of De Palma’s film, unable to resist the money, drugs and women in 1980s New York City, leading to his own and his client Carlito’s (Al Pacino) deaths. One of Penn’s earliest and most celebrated characters, Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in his own naïve (albeit stoned) disregard for school rules and teen angst experienced by the other characters in the film, is able to transcend the ethos he finds himself surrounded by and can revel in his dreams of being a pro-surfer and babe magnet.

Like these characters, This Must Be the Place’s Cheyenne is a recluse or outcast whose episodic journey across the United States to locate his father’s Holocaust tormentor is a search for not only the tormentor, Aloise Liange (Heinz Lieven), or simply himself (as many road movies prescribe) but for something immediate and important, less of a location than a time and event by which to recognise himself, as in “for me this must be the place.”


This Must Be the Place, writer, director Paolo Sorrentino, writer Umberto Contarello, music David Byrne, cinematography Luca Bigazzi, editor Christiano Travaglioli; Italian, French, Irish co-production, 2012; Australian distribution and DVD, Hopscotch.

RealTime has 6 copies of This Must Be the Place to giveaway courtesy of Hopscotch Entertainment. Email us at giveaways@realtimearts.net with your name, postal address and phone number. Include ‘Giveaway’ and the name of the item in the subject line.

Deane Williams is Associate Professor, Film and Television Studies, Monash University, Melbourne. He is Editor of Studies in Documentary Film and his books include Australian Post-War Documentary Films: An Arc of Mirrors (2008) and, with Brian McFarlane, Michael Winterbottom (2009). He is working on a number of books including The Films of Sean Penn for Columbia UP/Wallflower Press (2013) and editing (with Zoe Druick) The Grierson Effect (2013).

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 20

© Deane Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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