If you Google the phrase “Danzig shopping for cat supplies,” you’ll find links to phone-cam shots of former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig crossing a grocery-store parking lot while wearing a Danzig T-shirt and carrying Fresh Step. He’s a striking figure and, with his pale, vampiric aspect, totally incongruent with the prosaic suburban surroundings. The shots are humbling and humanizing, and therefore also kind of assholish and intrusive in a way that makes you want to punch the photographer in the nose.
In scenes perhaps inspired by those Danzig photos, retired musician Cheyenne (Sean Penn), the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, wanders through a Dublin grocery store in his ostentatious Robert Smith hair and makeup, dressed in black from head to toe, peering over the tops of his old-man reading glasses as he draws the stares and mean giggles of the other Tesco patrons.
A huge pop star in the ’80s, Cheyenne retired following a tragedy, buying land in Ireland and hanging around the neighborhoods now in the shadow of the undulant Aviva Stadium. Penn plays Cheyenne with childlike fragility, delivering dialogue with a tremulous, understated affect that belies the flamboyance of his appearance. He often disappears into the shadows in such dark spaces as dimly lit bars, gargoylish and physically closed. Cheyenne is gentle and funny, and though occasionally wise, has never become an adult, still wearing the same clothes and makeup he started wearing at age 14.
Cheyenne enjoys a meaningful and playful marriage to Jane (Frances McDormand), with whom he has lived for 35 years. They throw dinner parties, play handball in the empty pool behind the mansion, and have a lot of sex. Although the two live comfortably on his music fortune and apparently smart investments, she still enjoys working as a firefighter. Jane chides him gently for his lack of interest in song writing or MTV’s requests for televised appearances and loves him for the old-man crotchetiness he filters through his delicate, elfin persona. Penn is astonishing, creating a funny, guileless waif, infusing a faded celebrity figure with tactility and humor.
Indolent and creatively unproductive, Cheyenne is maybe the least likely globe-traveling Nazi hunter imaginable, but there you go. When his estranged father, a Holocaust survivor, passes away in New York, Cheyenne returns home for the funeral. His father’s diaries document a fruitless, decades-long search for a particular German prison-camp guard. In order to heal that estrangement, Cheyenne follows the clues in the journal across the United States in a dreamlike pursuit of his father’s tormentor. As he confronts the American family members of the fugitive Nazi guard, Cheyenne reveals his own gentleness and his unjudgmental affection for people.
If such disparate elements aren’t perfectly balanced, the whole narrative would buckle and shatter, like a sculpture of heavy steel and fragile glasswork. Sorrentino’s languorous photography, understated humor, and quiet but profound dramatic reveals coil together into something organic, whole, and achingly sweet.