Thursday, 23 August 2012
Performance: Sean Penn as Cheyenne in This Must Be The Place (2011)
Sean Penn's Cheyenne in This Must Be The Place (2011) is a character like no other. In physical appearance Cheyenne is a concoction of an elderly Edward Scissorhands or a punctured Robert smith of The Cure, but looks aren't everything as Penn goes on to prove. Cheyenne comes to light, brightly from the inside out. The character emerges relatively free of social context and narrative hierarchy. Perhaps as he initially shuffles onto the screen, you may mistakenly recognise him as a caricature of your average fucked-up rock-star. Yet, we're familiar with Ozzy Osbourne, we know him and the reality he has publicly presented to us is somewhat soulless in comparison to Penn’s genius creation.
Cheyenne drifts reluctantly in the shadow of his distant spotlight. He walks in tiny footsteps, his feet barely leaving the ground, dressed for a midnight soirée with Siouxsie Sioux in the early eighties, he is constantly haunted by the thick cloud of his past. Each current circumstance penetrates his thoughts at a steady pace as he takes a moment to mentally reconfigure and return to the now. Cheyenne is a victim of his own creation. He clings tightly to all that is left of his former physical self. The man behind the make-up doesn't exist to the viewer & dually without it, he doesn't exist to himself. (Unless you include the final scene, yet Penn's character at this point is mute, restrained and presented too ambiguously to seriously consider).
Physically Cheyenne is a visual stereotype, a has-been, aged rock-star with an aged rock-star's wardrobe. However, as the character develops throughout, the stereotypes are challenged head-on with vulnerability and sensitivity. Cheyenne transcends traditional ex-rocker stereotypes and surprisingly dually transcends gender. He is lacking in all aspects of maleness and is defined somewhat by impotence. He doesn't react well to moments of intimacy. His face is hidden with a blanket in a moment of sexual contact with his wife and later he pulls away horrified as another, younger female makes advances. Masculinity and Cheyenne are presented as two separate entities. The construction of Cheyenne is devoid of machismo, a trait which director Paolo Sorentino respects & avoids to ensure the character's idiosyncrasy is not compromised.
Cheyenne communicates in a soft and gentle tone, his words are accompanied with nervous body movements and a shifty eye. The confidence of his past rears its head momentarily but only in scenes of surprising hilarity or frustrated anger. Penn is able to contextualise the character's history, whilst it remains verbally absent from the script and without resorting to flamboyant histrionics. Sean Penn plus a long-lasting cocksucker-red lipstick, backcombed freak-show-fro and clothes normally seen on an over-weight "alternative" try-hard girl in Camden, fit together so perfectly. Penn is one of our greatest, as he proved earlier in his career as Harvey Milk (Milk (2008)). However, this time, against all of the odds, he has turned Cheyenne, a creature of such striking physical ugliness into a character that is perfect in every way and so unforgettably beautiful.