Sean Penn movies tend to fall into two categories: they are either major events (Mystic River, Tree of Life, Milk) or outsize disappointments (All the Kings Men, It’s All About Love). His latest outing on celluloid manages to tamp these expectation, which is likely both a good and bad thing. Good, because no one will blame him for the failure of another movie despite being (arguably) the best actor of his generation, and bad because this is actually one of his more novel efforts that matches the audacity of his performance. The premise alone should be enough evidence of this: a washed-up hasbeen goth rocker named Cheyenne (Penn) can’t seem to shed his old identity. He looks and sounds like an amalgam between Kiss and Marlyn Manson, which explains his brief popularity.
He comes to find out that his deceased father had a mission in life he knew nothing about: avenging his torture at the hands of the Third Reich during World War II. Cheyenne thus becomes obsessed with seeing his father’s aims realized, and a movie that was conceived as an esoteric character study becomes a rambunctious road trip movie into the American West. How it ends ultimately doesn’t matter as much as the fact that Cheyenne finally seems, at age 50, to come into his own. You’ll be shocked at how little you care about whether or not he is able to avenge his father’s torture in the end. Retribution is a many de-spelndored thing.
Penn is in full form here, which will rub some the wrong way because everything about the character and the movie lends itself to the over-the-top tendency. Penn is often accused of overacting, and in this movie his critics will have plenty to complain about. He seems, at times, to be channeling the ghost of Bea Arthur. Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, and Harry Dean Stanton all lend ample support in their smaller parts, though this movie rests firmly on Penn’s shoulders. It’s at times an overwrought ride, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. One of the more unique and rewarding experiences at cinemas this season.