Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/ France/Ireland, 2011, 112 mins
Review by Carol Allen
This film is nothing if not unusual. It is bizarre, sometimes baffling, always intriguing and very good to look at.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a 50 year old former Goth rock star, living in retirement in an impressive mansion in Ireland with his wife of 35 years (McDormand). She is the strong one who holds things together, he is bored and depressed. The death of his estranged father pulls him out of his torpor and sends him back to America, where he discovers the reason for his father’s neglect is that he was on a lifelong obsessive quest to find the Naz, who tormented and humiliated him when he was a prisoner in Auschwitz. Cheyenne takes up his father’s obsession and embarks on a journey across America, assisted by Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Hirsch).
Done up in unflattering make up and fright wig emulating Robert Smith of The Cure, Cheyenne is a bizarre figure, reminiscent of a sick old woman in the way he walks, dragging behind him initially a shopping trolley on his trips to the Dublin supermarket and then his suitcase on wheels through various American airports. We have to take on trust the fact that he is a former pop star, as we never see him performing, though there’s an evocative soundtrack from David Byrne, who also contributes a telling cameo in a good scene with Penn and a performance of the song This Must Be the Place in concert.
Cheyenne himself is in many ways a fascinating and original character but only intermittently engaging, as in a scene where he tells the story of a group of young people, who emulated one of his songs and killed themselves. It’s moments like that which make you sit up and take notice. McDormand is a lively contrast to him as his equally eccentric, loyal wife, who works as a firefighter. You feel you would like to know more about what one speculates must be an unusual and odd marriage and her presence is really missed, when the story moves to America.
Cheyenne’s journey there is interesting albeit diffuse one, throwing up more eccentric characters, such as Hirsch’s Nazi hunter in a refreshingly energetic performance, which contrasts effectively with Cheyenne’s sometimes near torpor, and a good though not wildly relevant cameo from Harry Dean Stanton, not to mention the old Nazi himself, when we finally get to him. There is also a somewhat puzzling plot strand in the Dublin sections of the film, involving a woman whose son has disappeared and who lives in a street with a beautiful glass building in the background, which suggests a significance that escapes me.
One of the things director Sorrentino seems really interested in is exploring the life beaten faces of older people, which he does particularly well and the film overall looks very good both in the way the camera explores those faces and in its many wide, panoramic shots. In some ways this film is a bit of an enigma but an interesting one even so.