If Sean Penn took the lead role in This Must Be the Place to prove that even after acclaim and an Oscar he is not afraid to take risks with his role choices, then it worked. This is an odd film, and Penn plays an odd character, a burnt out retired goth star.
But the film works, most of the time at least. At times the director tries a little too hard to make his film inscrutable and Jarmuschian. There is, for example, an elderly Native American who hops a ride in the pickup truck the rock star is driving across America, then just as unexpectedly hops out of the truck to wander into the desert. Although the quirkiness level veers slightly too high at times, the story is engaging and even moving at times. Having a depressed former pop star travel across America in order to root out the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father is an unexpected story decision, but it gives the audience a chance to see this frustrated artist and overgrown child finally grow up.
There is some wry humor, especially coming from the rock star’s long-suffering wife (Frances McDormand, who unfortunately disappears one third into the film). Judd Hirsch is excellent as a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, and it is good him still playing some good roles. There is lovely original music by Will Oldham and David Byrne, whose Talking Heads song gives the film its title and who appears as himself in the film. Penn’s high-pitched whisper threatens to get annoying, and fast. I was able stomach his portrayal from start to finish, but I could see how it might wear down the nerves of less-patient viewers. After, Penn, the second star of the film is the cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous. The camera is always wandering to and fro, which can be annoying in a film like Slumdog Millionaire, but in this film, about travelling without a clear destination, it works to support the story.