On the page, Charlie Countryman -- initially known by the irritating title The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman -- could be an insufferable bit of self-important nonsense; yet another movie about finding yourself and first love and all of those things that are personally important but are generally only blown up for the big screen through metaphor and exaggeration. The film also has the great misfortune of starring actor Shia LaBeouf, once a promising future star, now an internet joke thanks to his similarly insufferable and self-important nonsense about what it means to create. However, the finished film, thanks to compelling direction by Fredrik Bond and a number of excellent performances by LaBeouf's co-stars, is hypnotic and somewhat moving, offering the kind of unified tone and vision that so many movies lack.
Charlie (LaBeouf) is devastated when his father (Vincent D'Onofrio) finally takes his mother (Melissa Leo) off of life support. Unable to look at her body, he ducks outside, only to be greeted by her spiritual or ghostly form. After a bit of motherly soothing, she tells him that he ought to see the world, and advises him to go to Bucharest. On the plane, Charlie is seated next to Victor Ibanescu (Ion Caramitru), who briefly chats up Charlie, then drifts into a nap that turns out to be permanent. Charlie also sees Victor again shortly after his death, and is given the task of finding Victor's daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). The moment Charlie meets her, he's in love, and he follows her like a puppy dog around Bucharest. There's only one complication: Gabi's violent gangster husband, Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), who stayed away from her for years thanks to her father, but is free to return and menace her now the Victor is dead.
Watching Charlie Countryman, it's hard not to wish Charlie was played by someone whose charm felt more authentic. Even setting aside his recent grandstanding and seemingly endless ego when it comes to his work, LaBeouf's bag of tricks as an actor isn't that extensive -- self-deprecating sarcasm, a stuttering delivery that feels natural, and an emphasis on allowing the viewer to see his character is mentally processing a piece of information. Here, those "turning gears" are generally paired with hope in his big, soulful eyes that Gabi will continue to humor him. That may be what the script calls for, but the character of Charlie never quite seems charismatic enough. In LaBeouf's best scene, in which he coaches Gabi on how to replace a bad memory with a pleasant one, he drops the affectations, and briefly connects.
Thankfully, despite the title, the film is more than its main character. Fredrik Bond, in his directorial debut, envisions Charlie's story as a bloody, colorful, surreal fantasy, but, interestingly, a subtle one. The film takes place in a heightened reality where a character as menacing as Nigel can lurk around every street corner and hide in every shadow, and Charlie can see the ghosts of the recently departed, but doesn't quite drift into pure fantasy. A strip club in Bucharest, for instance, is the biggest, fanciest strip club around, but it's still possible to believe it exists. A drug trip sequence depicts the entire population of a youth hostel in the nude, but stops the fantasy there, with everyone milling around casually. It's a balance that prevents Bond from losing his emotional hold on the viewer, while also saturating the film with an excess of those feelings.
That head-over-heels attraction is embodied in Evan Rachel Wood, whose presence in the film is at least half of what makes the movie work. Once she begins to warm up to Charlie, there's an aura around her that is undeniably sexy -- a mix of maturity and playfulness, mysteriousness and cynicism, classiness and cool. It's easy to buy that she could play cello for the opera in the Bucharest Orchestra during the day, and run carefree through the streets of the city in a spiky leather jacket with a weird American tourist at night. Being around her is as intoxicating for the viewer as it is for Charlie. Similarly, Mikkelsen is equal parts seductive and threatening, using his incredible charisma to get in close before whispering an ultimatum. Half the time, it's ambiguous whether or not his character is really there, but either way, the actor leaves his mark. Til Schweiger plays pure threat as Nigel's associate Darko, and Rupert Grint is fine but unremarkable in one of his biggest post-Potter roles as one of Charlie's sweaty hostel roommates.
The deep purple artwork for Charlie Countryman effectively captures some of the movie's visual style, depicting Charlie running down a Bucharest street with a visual of Gabi and Charlie kissing in the upper corner. The design itself is no great shakes, but it's more in keeping with the film than most artwork these days, so for that it deserves some credit. The disc comes in a standard plastic-conserving eco-friendly Viva Elite, which slides into a handsome foil-embossed slipcover.
The Video and Audio
Although the packaging uses the phrase "full frame", it only references the 1.78:1 aspect ratio of the film's 1080p AVC presentation. Although this appears to be another digital production, with almost no grain, the image has a pleasing dimensionality to it thanks to a perfectly managed level of detail throughout -- close-ups are particularly impressive. In dark scenes, contrast is a touch flat, but it appears accurate in light scenes, and the film's wild colors are eye-catching and appealing, and I failed to detect any significant banding or or artifacting.
Right from the start, it's clear that this Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track has plenty to work with, deftly balancing the light piano score of the opening credits with the dull roar of distant action. Car crashes, the opera, crowded clubs, and gunshots follow, all enveloping the viewer in the film's specific atmosphere. The sound design here is hypnotic and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Two extras are included, both in HD. First up is an average, clip-heavy behind-the-scenes featurette (21:19). Although fans have no other options when it comes to learning about the making of the film, this piece is on the slow and dry side, with an air of everyone going through the promotional motions. Deleted scenes (21:00) include an alternate version of the film's opening and closing, featuring narration by John Hurt that really oversells the meaning of these moments. The other deleted scenes are less remarkable, just trimmed additions to scenes that remained in the film.
Trailers for Parkland, As I Lay Dying, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, and Hell Baby play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Charlie Countryman is also included under the "Previews" tab on the main menu.
Despite my reservations, the atmosphere of Charlie Countryman quickly enveloped me, thanks to Bond's hypnotic vision and Evan Rachel Wood and Mads Mikkelsen's impressive turns. Shia LaBeouf is a weak link, and the film's ultimate message or meaning may not be as triumphantly meaningful or weighty as screenwriter Matt Drake wants the viewer to believe, but it's a memorable journey just the same. Recommended.
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