“Charlie Countryman” opens up with an arresting image, the titular character (played by Shia LaBeouf) dangling upside down in woozy slow-motion, his face brutally beaten and bloody. As the narrator (John Hurt) explains, Charlie Countryman is languishing in the wind about to be shot by a red-headed girl, and that the young man had to die. And he did it all for love.
Cut to present day. Charlie is about is about to lose his ailing mother (Melissa Leo). His mom’s boyfriend (a brief Vincent D’Onofrio cameo) tells Charlie this is going to be the day they take her off life support (how she got in that state remains explained), and they drive together to the hospital. Charlie and the boyfriend pop some pills, sip some booze and say their final goodbyes. Charlie has some kind of fantastical anxiety attack as she passes—complete with visualizations of her soul leaving her body—and he runs outside, only to discover he can speak to dead people. From the afterlife, his mom, never one for giving much direction or advice, laments that she was a poor maternal figure. Desperate for something, Charlie asks her for some advice of what he should do next. Go to Bucharest, she says. Why the capital of Romania of all places? What’s the personal connection? This is completely unclear, but Charlie packs his bags, jumps on a plane and heads straight into a bloody, violent and romantic adventure far greater than he could ever imagine.
On the plane, he meets Mr. Banyai, a curious Romanian man who just wants to talk and talk. Charlie eventually indulges him and they discuss life and his daughter. The man dies in his sleep, and in the spiritual world, he tells Charlie to send his daughter a message. Deplaned, Charlie, after some unnecessary altercations with the airport security, meets Gabi Banyai (Evan Rachel Wood), a cello player with a mysterious dark past. Charlie, dedicated to the spontaneity this adventure his mother sent him on can provide, becomes drawn to Gabi like a magnet, and soon is embroiled in the troubles of her sordid past that includes a violent and unhinged ex-husband named Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen) and his equally psychotic partner Darko (Til Schweiger). Englishmen Rupert Grint and James Buckley play would-be amusing Tweedledum and Tweedledee comic relief figures, but they’re just one extraneous part of what starts out as a coming-of-age personal discovery story and quickly deteriorates into an ungainly, violent love-story cum fairy tale that feels like it was made in the post-Tarantino ’90s (with a little bit of eurotrash flavor thrown on top for good measure).
The filmmaker at work here is award-winning Swedish commercial director Frederik Bond, who commits the classic transitional mistake many music video directors and commercial lensers make by emphasizing style over substance and story. And “Charlie Countryman” is over-styled to the hilt. While it’s bold in its opening stages, the tendency for a visual blow-out to every scene becomes strained, and then just obnoxious. While the “Charlie Countryman” script is dated and unremarkable (even if it did land on the Black List in 2007), Bond would have done well to take out his earbuds to the music-heavy movie for a second, and see what could have been improved on the page. LaBeouf is good in the not-exactly-best-drawn role he’s given, and the film is always at its best when it allows the scenes time to breathe and the actors space to perform. But as the movie rolls on, those moments become virtually non-existent.
While the film does feature a good score and soundtrack of tunes that might work better independently from the picture, (M83, Dead Mono, Sigur Ros), Bond can’t resist slathering the story with over-euphoric music every chance he gets. In particular, the movie feels like the swelling, love-cranked-up-to-11 crescendo of a Sigur Ros song at all times, making for a picture that seems desperate to be seen as a deeply-felt, slow-motion music video. But with this romantic resonance over-pitched throughout, nothing remains special when it’s all at the same decibel level (and if filmmakers could receive slo-mo speeding tickets for the abuse of the medium, Bond would be slapped with a hefty fine).
“Charlie Countryman” opens up with an interesting first section, but only backslides deeper and deeper in its overwrought and incoherent second and third acts. Tonally adolescent, the film is enraptured with the emo-ness and ecstasy of love. It wants to yell from the rafters at all times. It will dive off cliffs in slow-motion to some fever-pitched post-rock song to demonstrate its commitment to your heart. Love may be all you need, but, sheesh, give it a rest for a second. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.