Sean Penn Rocks Out in ‘This Must Be the Place’

The actor made an unexpected showing at Sundance with 'This Must Be the Place.' Chris Lee on the eccentric role.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Sundance Film Festival is no exception.

Coming into 2012, the fest’s line-up appeared to be absent one of Sundance’s most reliable boilerplates from over the years: a feature drama focusing on characters undertaking a cross-country journey of self-discovery. Google “cross-country journey of self-discovery” and “Sundance” and you’ll see what I’m talking about—there are enough of these films to constitute a legitimate sub-genre. Little Miss Sunshine features a dysfunctional family going such a journey; The Motorcycle Diaries has a young Che Guevara doing it; the 2005 mumblecore comedy The Puffy Chair follows a failed indie rocker taking the drive; and the YouTube mockumentary Catfish has a trio of social media enthusiasts behind the wheel.

But this year, a cursory scan through the festival line-up revealed no such cross-country journey of self-discovery movie—a seemingly glaring oversight for any Sundance. Enter Sean Penn’s extreme oddball dramedy This Must Be the Place.

A surprise entry to the festival that is not listed anywhere in Sundance’s promotional literature or film guide—the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and the lesbian paternity dramedy The Kids Are Alright made similarly unannounced debuts at Sundance—This Must Be the Place debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year to mixed reviews and was acquired for North American distribution by the Weinstein Company. It follows Penn’s mono-monikered character Cheyenne, an aging Goth rocker who has forsaken pop music for a life of idyll and quiet desperation in Ireland. He’s hit the mid-life doldrums—a soft-spoken, pancake-make-up-wearing, black-haystack-hair-do'ed dropout who’s clearly modeled after the Cure’s frontman Robert Smith.

When Cheyenne’s estranged father, an Orthodox Jew who survived the Holocaust, dies in New York, the character comes into possession of his diaries. And after digesting his father’s obsession with exacting revenge on the Nazi guard who humiliated him at a German concentration camp, the fey, campy yet sharp-tongued Cheyenne sets out to find the aging Nazi, now living somewhere in America. Indelicately maneuvering a Dodge Ram pickup and packing one of the largest pistols outside a Chuck Norris movie, Penn’s character embarks upon a surreal odyssey that turns into—yes, you guessed it—a cross-country journey of self-discovery that eventually compels him to embrace his higher self.

Penn braved an intense blizzard that shellacked the Wasatch Mountains Saturday to attend the movie’s Sundance premiere and received a partial standing ovation after the screening. Noting that the performance ranks up there with the actor’s most mannered character parts—his turn as a developmentally disabled man in I Am Sam and Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High among them—an audience member asked Penn how much he enjoyed portraying eccentric characters.

“I was born with a crooked enough face to be offered these roles,” Penn noted dryly. “I don’t think any actor buys into the whole ‘character role’ thing. You wait for the script. It’s about what touches you.”

The actor—one of the biggest Hollywood stars to make the trek to Park City this year—went on to detail what led him to sign on to the film written and directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino. “Paolo and I met at the Cannes Film Festival as jurors,” Penn said. “I said, ‘If you ever have an idea, I’d love to work with you.’ Well, he had an idea.”

The part required a kind of physical containment and affectlessness—Cheyenne shuffles around with a wheeled suitcase, barely moving his facial muscles for most of the movie—that is shattered during a scene where Penn dances with herky-jerky exuberance to Iggy Pop’s 1977 single “The Passenger” in a Michigan hotel room.

Asked about the kind of release the scene afforded him, Penn demurred. “I didn’t want to excite anybody too much,” he said.