Author: Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello
Writer’s Potential: 3
A washed-up rock star embarks on a trip across the U.S. to find the Nazi soldier who tormented his recently deceased father.
In Dublin, CHEYENNE (50s) performs a ritual of putting on black clothes and applying goth-like makeup. Meanwhile, MARY (teens) performs the same ritual. These two depressed souls meet at a mall, where they see a band butchering a cover of a familiar song. Cheyenne and Mary go to a coffee shop in the mall, and it becomes clear that this a routine, and they have an awkward friendship as a result of Cheyenne’s celebrity. DESMOND, a clerk at another store, awkwardly asks Mary out. She treats Desmond like crap and sends him away. At a grocery store, two girls laugh at Cheyenne’s appearance. When they aren’t looking, he smashes everything in their cart and disappears. Cheyenne meets his best friend, JEFFREY, at the bank where he works. Jeffrey talks nonstop about sex and wonders why Cheyenne isn’t similarly focused. That evening, Cheyenne goes home and has dinner with his wife, JANE, who tells him MTV wants his band to reunite and perform at their music awards. Cheyenne refuses. Cheyenne slips Desmond a rare bootleg CD to give to Mary. She’s thrilled, but she quickly realizes Cheyenne set this up and still turns down Desmond. Cheyenne and Mary visit the graves of two boys who died as teenagers. Their ELDERLY PARENTS are there, and they yell at Cheyenne, reminding him he’s not welcome at their sons’ grave. Mary starts crying, but Cheyenne seems unaffected by this. He merely leads Mary out of the cemetery.
STEVEN, the leader of the cover band Cheyenne and Mary passed by earlier, comes to Cheyenne’s home. He begs Cheyenne to produce a CD by his band, the Pieces of Shit. Cheyenne agrees to listen to their demo CD, but he tells Steven he’s not a producer. Cheyenne drops by Mary’s house to meet her, but comes upon her MOTHER instead. Mary’s Mother is angry, blaming Cheyenne for the disappearance of her son, Tony. Cheyenne invites Mary, Desmond, and Jeffrey to a dinner party. Desmond attempts to impress Mary but fails. Jeffrey remains preoccupied with his uninvited girlfriend, who brought a dog. That night, Mary’s Mother is found by police, wandering down the middle of a highway on a rainy night. Cheyenne and Mary attempt to comfort her. Cheyenne learns his father is dying and wants to see him, but he’s petrified of flying. Jane encourages Cheyenne to do it. He’s given special permission to sit in the cockpit with the pilots to put him at ease, but they’re obnoxious and unprofessional, so Cheyenne opts not to fly. He takes a ship across the Atlantic. When he arrives in New York, he learns his father has died. His brother, RICHARD, takes him to view the body as the tahara is performed on him. Cheyenne notices several Auschwitz tattoos on his father’s wrinkled skin. Cheyenne meets with friend and ex-Talking Heads frontman DAVID BYRNE, who performs a special concert at the Knitting Factory in honor of Cheyenne’s dad. Cheyenne confesses that Byrne is a real artist, while Cheyenne just exploited depressed kids with bad pop songs.
At the funeral, Richard points out MORDECAI LEVY to Cheyenne. Cheyenne doesn’t know who he is. At a Benihana steakhouse, a man named ERNIE RAY strikes up a conversation with Cheyenne, strongly hinting that he wants Cheyenne to drive his truck to Oklahoma. Cheyenne turns him down. Richard gives Cheyenne their father’s diary and drawings, which he wanted Cheyenne to have. They give clues about Aloise Muller, the man who tortured him at Auschwitz. Richard tells him to take the information to Mordecai Levy, who has brought to justice hundreds of Nazis. Cheyenne meets with Levy, who doesn’t give him any realy help. Cheyenne agrees to transport Ernie Ray’s pickup truck, after all. Cheyenne drives all day and calls Jane from a motel room, claiming he’s just boarded the ship to return to Ireland. The next day, he arrives in a small town in Indiana. Based on his father’s notes, Muller’s wife, DOROTHY SHORE, lives in this town. Cheyenne tracks her from church back to her house. Claiming to be one of Dorothy’s former students (she’s a teacher), Cheyenne gets her to invite him into her home. He tells her that he has fond memories of her lecture on the Holocaust. Dorothy is surprised, because she usually ran out of time and skipped the World War II unit. Cheyenne asks Dorothy why she thinks the Jews were persecuted. She believes the Nazis wanted their money. That night, Cheyenne stakes out Dorothy’s house. He breaks into it while she sleeps and digs through her possessions until he finds some letters and drawings from Dorothy’s granddaughter and great-grandson, in Texas.
At another motel, Cheyenne begins listening to the Pieces of Shit’s demo. Despite the name, the music is good. Cheyenne drives to Texas, picking up an Indian hitchhiker along the way. He stakes out the home of RACHEL MULLER, watching her break down crying, then follows her to the diner where she works. When he enters the diner as a customer, Rachel recognizes Cheyenne from his music. Cheyenne challenges some teenagers to a ping-pong game, which he wins. After she gets off work, Cheyenne follows Rachel to a disco, where he approaches her and dances with her. Cheyenne tracks Rachel back to her home and watches from his truck as she tucks in her 10-year-old son, TOMMY. The next day, Rachel tells Cheyenne that Tommy has a fear of the water. Cheyenne hires contractors to install an above-ground pool in Rachel’s yard. It doesn’t help Tommy. Rachel invites Cheyenne to stay for dinner. After she puts Tommy to bed, Cheyenne and Rachel start talking about parents. She reveals her parents moved to Hong Kong because of bad blood with her grandparents, who retired to Huntsville, Utah. Cheyenne leaves the next morning. As he makes his way toward Utah, Rachel and Tommy bond, and Tommy finally gets into the water.
Over the phone, Cheyenne finally confesses to Jane that he’s not on the ship. She’s shocked. While stopped at a gas station, Cheyenne watches as Ernie Ray’s truck suddenly explodes. A mechanic explains that somebody must have put in too much oil. Cheyenne buys a brand new truck and takes a bunch of oil rig workers back to Oklahoma. Cheyenne shows up at Ernie Ray’s home with the new truck. Cheyenne visits a gun shop, where he buys several pistols. A goth girl recognizes Cheyenne, but he denies he’s Cheyenne. In Huntsville, Utah, Cheyenne stops at a bar, where he needles an OLD MAN about any German residents in the town. The Old Man is evasive, but after rambling about himself for awhile, he admits there is one German resident in town—but his name is Peter Smith, not Aloise Muller. Cheyenne stakes out Peter Smith’s house. It’s empty, so Cheyenne breaks in and digs through Peter’s possession while he gets drunk on Peter’s liquor. He calls Steven and agrees to produce his CD, telling him to rent the most expensive studio in Dublin and charge it to Cheyenne. While on the road back to the motel, Cheyenne thinks he sees TONY from behind, but it turns out to be a total stranger.
Mordecai Levy has tracked Cheyenne to the motel. He knows Where Aloise Muller/Peter Smith has fled to: Canada. They drive up to the snowy plains of Canada together, where they find Aloise’s house, isolated in the middle of the frozen wasteland. Cheyenne goes into the house alone, while Levy waits. ALOISE simply sits, waiting, resigned to his fate. Before Cheyenne can do anything, Aloise melodramatically explains why the Nazis did what they did (they were all obsessed with fitting in and imitating each other, which the Jews had no interest in, so that led them to persecute the Jews for having higher self-esteem), then explains he knows everything about Cheyenne and his father. He shows Cheyenne his missing hand, which was blown off in a letter-bomb Cheyenne’s father sent when he discovered Aloise’s whereabouts. This ruined Aloise’s carpenter livelihood and forced him into hiding. Aloise feels this makes them even. Cheyenne doesn’t agree. He forces Aloise to strip naked and start marching through the snow. Levy watches, shocked, as the elderly man struggles through the knee-high snow. Cheyenne waits with Levy at the airport, then takes a ship back to Dublin. He calls his home, and Mary answers. Mary tells Cheyenne not to get too swept up in death and sorrow.
Mary’s Mother sits on the porch of her house, smoking a cigarette as usual. A figure appears in the distance, heading toward the house. At first, she thinks it’s Tony, but as the figure gets closer, it turns out to be Cheyenne. To his surprise, she raises her hand in greeting and smiles. Cheyenne smiles, too.
This Must Be the Place desperately wants to be a deep, thought-provoking examination of the multigenerational impact of the Holocaust. However, it barely even qualifies as a dramatic story; it’s more like a series of barely connected scenes fumbling for some kind of purpose. The story, if one can call it that, is a structural disaster—plus, it doesn’t even follow a worthwhile character. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act is devoted to establishing both Cheyenne and a number of characters and conflicts (Desmond wanting to date Mary, Mary’s Mother blaming Cheyenne for the never-explained disappearance of Tony, Cheyenne growing bored in his marriage to Jane, Jeffrey irritating both Jane and Cheyenne with his sexual compulsion) that have nothing to do with anything. The writers make a vain, somewhat embarrassing attempt to tie everything back together in the end, but reminding us of these characters at the end does little more than underscore how aimless this story actually is. It wastes a solid 32 pages before Cheyenne’s dying father is even mentioned, and another 20 before Cheyenne starts his tedious spiritual quest across the U.S., which is supposed to be the main thrust of the story.
The second act focuses on the death of Cheyenne’s father and his search for Aloise Muller, the Nazi who tormented him. Why does he feel compelled to do this? Who knows? Why does he warm up to Rachel and Tommy and do such nice things for them? Preemptive guilt? The writing is subtle to the point where nothing makes any sense. Cheyenne simply does things and goes places without any rhyme or reason, while the writers repeatedly mention how blank and impenetrable Cheyenne’s face is. Guess what? A blank-faced, taciturn lead character with nothing but internal motivations (as opposed to having an external character like Mordecai Levy nudging Cheyenne in a direction for clear reasons) is a recipe for the world’s dullest character and the world’s least interesting story.
The third act does nothing to redeem the tedium. Bringing Levy back into the story actually gives it a little bit of well-defined forward motion, but it feels like far too much of a convenient cheat to bring this seemingly extraneous character back into the story just when Cheyenne has lost his lead on Aloise. Cheyenne’s confrontation is similarly unsatisfying: like the rest of the script, nothing really happens. Aloise rambles, as if speaking for all Nazis, and then accepts his fate with no argument. The antagonist giving up after a blandly preachy speech is not exactly scintillating drama.
There’s no kinder way to put this: Cheyenne is boring. He’s a lobotomized Morrissey with nothing interesting to say on the rare occasions he does speak, and the writers struggle like hell to make this journey mean something—have some kind of impact on the character. However, he’s too much of a cipher, which makes it impossible to care about anything he does. Even when he gets revenge on Aloise, it’s never clear that that’s what he really wants, or if he does want it, it’s never clear why. Who cares that he finally starts smiling in the last few pages, when the writers never give a strong sense of why he wasn’t smiling prior to that? The world’s greatest actor would have an extremely difficult time making this character worth watching.
The other characters in the script simply exist. None of them seem to serve any particular purpose—if Cheyenne sees something in them that helps him come to realizations about himself, that’s never made clear. As mentioned, every character introduced in the first act (including Cheyenne’s wife) completely disappears from the story until the last two pages, making the long, slow setups of their personalities and conflicts meaningless distractions. On the other hand, it seems like Cheyenne’s encounters with Rachel and Tommy are supposed to have some sort of deeper meaning—if they don’t, then why the hell does it go on so long?—but that deeper meaning is never, ever crystallized, no matter how many montages involving swimming pools and floating paper boats the writers throw into the script.