Review: The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: While travelling abroad, an American tourist- Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) falls hard for a Romanian girl, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) who happens to be the estranged wife of a psychotic gangster, Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen).
REVIEW: THE NECESSARY DEATH OF CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN is an easy film to pick on. The reliance of style over substance is ramped up to near ludicrous heights in this, the feature debut of commercial director Frederik Bond. The script, by Matt Drake is an unwieldy mixture of film noir, action/adventure, crime thriller and romance- complete with a heavy dose of magic realism. The latter means the film includes not only magic fairies leaving the bodies of the deceased, but that Charlie's deceased mother (Melissa Leo) acts as a kind of Greek chorus throughout. If it sounds like a mess- that's only because it is.
Despite this- I still really liked CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN, even though it has several near fatal flaws. I have a soft spot for stylish thrillers- and the fact that COUNTRYMAN is so damn sincere made me overlook some of the things that would have normally led to a pan. Even if it's a patchwork of other, better films (not limited to RUN LOLA RUN)- the sheer stylishness of it all puts CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN over.
A hyper-kinetic take on ROMEO & JULIET, CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN is most successful when it follows Charlie on his nightmarish decent into the Romanian underworld, where he's pitted not only against the crazed Nigel, but also the equally menacing Darko- played by Till Schweiger. Mikkelsen, and Schweiger make a pretty scary team of thugs- with especially Mikkelsen having the look of a rabid dog throughout, who can't wait to tear poor Shia LaBeouf limb-from-limb. The film opens with Charlie apparently being killed by Evan Rachel Wood's Gabi- at the behest of Nigel, and from there we zoom back to the beginning, as Charlie first meets his future lover when her father happens to die as Charlie's seatmate on the plane bringing them both to Bucharest.
One of COUNTRYMAN's significant problems is that while both Wood and LeBeouf are appealing, we're never really convinced the two are star-crossed lovers. Sure- they have chemistry, but it's distinctly sexual, and not as emotional as it probably should have been given the story. Still, Wood's absolutely gorgeous as Gobi, who in addition to being the former first lady of the Romanian underworld, also happens to be a world-renowned cellist. This leads to a scene where Wood plays in the orchestra of an opera that essentially foreshadows the film's conclusion- which is maybe a tad heavy-handed, and obvious.
As the titular character, LaBeouf fares well- although for all the buzz about this being his first indie role, in the end his part here isn't all that different from the one he plays in TRANSFORMERS, although he looks far rattier here than Michael Bay probably would have ever allowed. COUNTRYMAN is pretty solidly a genre film, with it being packed to the brim with chases (LaBeouf spends a lot of time running in slow-motion) and carnage. The only time he really seems to stretch is during an extended sequence where he's under the influence of Carpathian ecstasy, supplied by a couple of English tourists- one of whom is Rupert Grint, who shakes off his HARRY POTTER image in one scene where he od's on Viagra while auditioning for porn. What would Dumbledore think?
The most successful aspect of CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN is the melding of music and hyper-stylized imagery. The soundtrack is incredible, with music by Moby, M83, Sigur Ros, and more. The chase scenes, including an extended jaunt through the Bucharest metro, are thrilling- mostly due to Bond's innovative style, and the propulsive soundtrack. It's in sequences like these where CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN really cooks.
I'd be willing to bet CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN is going to get a pretty rough critical reception out of Sundance, but to me- taken as a straight genre flick it works well-enough. Granted- a little trimming could go a long way (John Hurt's narration seems the most likely candidate for excision), but even as it is- it's an energetic chase flick, and more often than not very entertaining. Even if this doesn't get a huge release, I could see it picking up a cult audience somewhere down the line.