Blu-ray Review: Charlie Countryman (2013)

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Original Title: The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman

Hallucinatory and hypnotic – there is a masterpiece of a movie to be found in Frederick Bond’s ultraviolent, dark-as-night valentine Charlie Countryman. Unfortunately and no offense to Shia LaBeouf’s no-holds-barred portrayal of the eponymous lead who’d been sleepwalking through life and is now beginning to feel, the most memorable storyline of the entire movie has absolutely nothing to do with the title character.

Instead, told in flashback and voice-over by the always impressive Evan Rachel Wood, we’re filled in on the unexpectedly riveting back-story of her Beauty and the Beast like romance with the horrific underworld gangster Nigel (a terrifying Mads Mikkelsen).

Sidelined by a near-death encounter, Nigel convalesced in a flat above the Bucharest café where Wood’s gifted yet naïve and sheltered cellist played for customers from morning until night. Growing stronger day by day and note by note – Nigel not only found himself healed by the transformative power of her music but also falling in love with the woman whose playing saved his life before he’d ever laid eyes on her.

And (as Wood’s Gabi explains to Charlie) it was only after the two began a whirlwind romance did Gabi realize that although she saved Nigel’s life, by getting involved with Nigel, she’d forever jeopardized her own as once the afterglow wore off, she learned there was nothing beautiful about this particular beast.

Revealed late into Charlie, it’s only once we reach this point of explanation where Gabi tells LaBeouf’s hopelessly smitten American tourist just how on Earth she could’ve ever married a man who stalks and threatens the lives of her as well as anyone who looks at her twice that we realize what had been missing thus far in the film. Charlie Countryman's missing ingredient was anything resembling an actual and involving storyline.

While Bond’s feature filmmaking debut based on the screenplay by Matt Drake had been undeniably interesting for the first hour, it was ultimately salvaged thanks to his background as a commercial director who knows how to milk style over substance for all its worth and keep us watching for the eye candy alone.

Likewise, the meandering approach taken thus far had only proven why you can’t make great films out of books by Beat Generation authors in that they valued artistry and rhythm over structure and storylines.

Saddled with an uneasy hero in the form of LaBeouf’s American in existential crisis (following the death of his mother), Charlie’s main impetus for action in the film is reaction.

Constantly set in motion by outside stimuli (including conversations with two separate ghosts), Charlie is knocked down like a stack of dominoes from frame one and this process is repeated for a majority of the first act as he passively reacts to people, places and situations. It isn’t until he meets Gabi that he decides to make a decision in his own right, even going as far as to admit that he doesn’t “get feelings” very often.

Although LaBeouf commits himself fully to the role, the way his character bounces back from depressive funk to manic screwball in the blink of an eye, it’s almost as if the screenwriter was as uninterested in him as the audience and kept changing his persona stream-of-consciousness style as he wrote to see if Charlie would suddenly “get interesting.”

While thankfully the film and in turn LaBeouf’s character is augmented by a rather ingenious coda that symbolically harks back to the film’s opening imagery, adding a surprisingly deep layer of extra meaning to the circle of life motif and film’s original title of The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, unfortunately it doesn’t make up for Charlie's divertingly creative if narratively all-over-the-place first two-thirds.

Nonetheless, Bond utilizes his commercial background to his credit, infusing Charlie Countryman with some infectious moments of true romance and stylistic breaths of fresh air (courtesy of his entire behind-the-scenes team including cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and editor Hughes Winborne) that come to life in this sparkling Blu-ray transfer.

With this in mind, Bond is undoubtedly someone to watch in the future of cinema. Nonetheless I can only hope that he’ll choose a far more solid screenplay and take the longer art-form of feature filmmaking into greater consideration to make a film that truly maximizes its running time rather than just passing time until its next out-of-this-world scene that makes it seem like it’s a group of short films strung together rather than a cohesive long one.

While Charlie is admirable for its artistic achievements alone (including the aforementioned mesmerizing segment that wouldn’t have been out of place in music themed film festival alongside The Red Violin and Three Colors: Blue),unfortunately the least fascinating thing about Charlie Countryman is Charlie Countryman.

While it’s hardly LaBeouf’s fault as Drake’s script is – just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – filled with far too many, richer drawn Mercutio-like figures (including scene-stealers Mads Mikkelsen and Til Schweiger), it is interesting how many times they name-drop Robert Redford characters and movies with regard to LaBeouf.

Perhaps covertly apologizing to his fans for the poorly written character, the film-in-film meta-modern reference to the actor’s far more stellar work acting alongside Redford in the recent The Company You Keep provides a great recommendation for LaBeouf enthusiasts wanting to see something that actually makes the most of his talent and charm.

Reminiscent of In Bruges and A Life Less Ordinary, not to mention the tripper sequences of Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe – which also has star Evan Rachel Wood in common – this official Sundance Film Festival selection is now available to rent or own on disc and download.

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