VOD Review: Charlie Countryman.
Shia LaBeouf seems right at home in this surreal love story with dark undertones.
Since Shia is getting ready to serve up a new film –Borg vs. McEnroe – this weekend, I thought it was high time to check out another of his recent offerings, Charlie Countryman. This weird love story has the added benefit of also featuring Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale) who really doesn’t get enough screen time for how excellent his performances are. The film itself was critically panned but has a touch of a cult following.
Charlie Countryman is a bit of an odd duck. It is surreal without being baroque, affected without being artificial, and earnest without being self-serious. There is a detached quality about all of the weirdness on display that gives the piece a dream-like feel. While it can be ponderous, erratic, and a touch naive, it is also quite emotionally moving in places and boasts a wonderful visual and audio aesthetic. It is not the kind of movie with wide appeal, but for those willing to brave its eccentricities it does have some genuine merits.
Charlie Countryman (AKA: The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman) 2013.
An awkward and sensitive young man (Shia LaBeouf) goes on a journey to Bucharest after the passing of his mother. Another sudden death aboard his plane causes him to meet and fall in love with a beautiful young musician named Gabriela (Evan Rachel Wood), but their relationship seems doomed from the start. Nigel, a violent and unstable criminal from her past (Mads Mikkelsen), refuses to leave Gabriela alone, and he sets his murderous sights on the hapless tourist from America.
This film has been described as a dark romance with touches of magical realism. The inciting incidence for this story is that Charlie’s recently deceased mother appears to him and sends him to Bucharest. Along the way Charlie sees her again, as well as another recently deceased person, Gabriela’s father. While that is bizarre, it pops up infrequently and rather than make the film fantastical it serves to highlight how troubled Charlie is.
With one exception, the visions can be interpreted as a mental break on his part. Dialogue from Charlie’s mother and step-father hint that he’s a danger to himself. He certainly bears this out by making a movie-long string of erratic decisions. LaBeouf plays Charlie in like fashion. He’s by turns reserved and introspective and then wildly expressive and manic. LaBeouf’s acting style meshes well with the character, so those who are not a fan of Shia being Shia should probably take this under advisement. For me, the character/performance was sincere enough that I accepted that Charlie is just a bit of a broken individual who is going through some very heavy stuff.
Quite the Oddity.
The character quirks extend to pretty much every character in the film. Mads Mikkelsen’s Nigel has the sophisticated menace that is typical of Mikkelsen’s roles, but he speaks rather cryptically and poetically askance to whomever he is addressing. There’s similar dislocation for other characters as well. A gangster boss named Darko speaks in broken English with strange idioms that leave the meaning of his threats ambiguous. The dialogue and delivery in this film has a strange quality, as if people are talking at each other instead of with each other.
I’m on the fence on whether or not this quality is a bug or a feature. It could be an error from the director or an artifact of the language barrier (this is a joint production of American and Romanian origins) or it could be an artistic choice to reinforce the surreal nature of the piece. I took it as the latter but once again some will find it to be a point of contention.
A Long Trip.
Another aspect of Charlie Countryman that will divide audiences is the pacing. This film can feel arduously long in places, but then role through several high-impact scenes in rapid fashion. I often found myself perplexed when I thought I had paused the movie after 30 minutes of screen-time and found only ten had gone by. At the end of the film, this became pronounced. With 20 minutes left, the movie covered what in other films would have warranted an hour.
Part of this is because the film has some pacing issues in the middle. Part of it is because the way the film is edited allows the story to speed up and slow down dramatically. Finally, part of this is because the sensibility of the piece defies normal story telling conventions in what it considers to be worthy of focusing on. Instead of dwell on the sexier story points of a love triangle and trying to avoid a dangerous criminal, the film is really more interested in the feeling of dislocation that the story creates. The film really feels like a dream in places, where time and place, cause and effect are unconstrained by normal waking logic.
Viewer Discretion is Advised.
I can see why Charlie Countryman has such a polarized reputation. I can make an argument for why this film is a morass of pacing, story telling, and character issues. But I can also make an argument for these issues being artistically motivated. At the end of the day, Charlie Countryman just kind of clicked with me. I can’t say that it is a triumph; several of the issues are quite distracting whether or not you feel they are coming from inexperience or from grand motives. I can say that I think I saw what director Fredrik Bond was aiming to accomplish.
I think he was creating a film that is more concerned with how it hits you emotionally rather than intellectually. The pervasive oddity, dream-like qualities, and fantastical elements all seem geared towards sneaking past or overwhelming your logic center and tapping into stuff that is subconscious, a little like a Terry Gilliam movie. Or maybe it’s a mess of a movie that I happened to like. Either way, I found it to be weird and interesting in a way some people might just get a kick out of.