Charlie Countryman, originally entitled as The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman stars Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood in a cross-genre film, equal parts drama, romance, mystery and thriller-adventure. Charlie Countryman is directed by Fredrik Bond in a first time effort, and written by Matt Drake.
LaBeouf is an excellent choice to play the lead Charlie Countryman (symbolic name). He is always interesting to watch. In every scene his acting talents are superb enough to sustain us throughout and keep us guessing where the adventure is going. LaBeouf is real with his incredible natural spirit that is never forced. With it he is able to seal a quiet, undercurrent of suspenseful doom. He believably evokes the spontaneous, devil-may-care attitude that is vital for revealing this character who is willing to take risks on life, living on the edge after his mother is taken off life support and dies in his presence.
Charlie is an unusual, perhaps spiritual kind of everyman. We are initiated into the character’s weirdness when he sees a physical manifestation of his mom’s soul/spirit leaving her body, hovering, then de-materializing. This is not the way individuals react to taking a pain killer; certainly not his brother. It is the way he reacts. As he collapses to grieve her loss in the hospital hallway, his mom (Melissa Leo) appears before him in a friendly, life-like manner and cajoles and teases him as she did in life. She suggests he go on a journey and travel to Bucharest, Romania. Budapest, Hungary we understand. But Bucharest, Romania, a newly emerging Eastern European country, that is not known for its heavily populated tourist venues? Her suggestion is as weird as her presence, but by the end of the film, the writer and director have acclimated us to off-beat and somehow we “go with it” because Charlie/LaBeouf makes it plausible.
On the flight to Bucharest, through a comical event, Charlie meets fellow seat-mate and passenger, Victor, a Romanian who is returning from America after he watched games of the Chicago Cubs losing. When Charlie shows he is perplexed by this, Victor gives his bizarre, humorous rationale for why he appreciates this losing team. After they chat and become acquainted, Victor treats Charlie to a glass of champagne and shows Charlie the hat he’s bought for Gabi, his daughter whom he adores. Then both fall asleep with smiles on their faces crossing the Atlantic in a night flight. But only Charlie awakes to the sunrise. Victor has joined Charlie’s mother on the other side into the ocean of spirit. Charlie is devastated once more. Of all the seats he was given, he is sitting next to the second person in a recent time period who died and who appears to him, very much alive. Yes, like Charlie’s mom, Victor gives Charlie instructions for him to follow in Bucharest, concerning his daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood).
Freaked, Charlie disembarks the plane but sees flight personnel drop Victor’s hat for Gabi. Charlie grabs it obligated by the promise he made to Victor but becomes obstreperous when personnel confront him. He’s manhandled and brought in for questioning. Charlie attempts to explain that Victor’s spirit told him to meet up with Gabi and give her a message and the hat is part of it. Convinced he’s on drugs, the security person finally ascertains he is “clean.” That leaves the wacky and surreal explanation or a lie.
The official refers to the film The Sixth Sense telling Charlie, “Don’t tell me you’re like that kid in the Bruce Willis film who says, ‘I see dead people.'” The bit is hysterical. LaBeouf is “dead” serious which makes the scene ping and shows us Charlie’s vitality and courage with such a wild answer. He’s in this all the way and isn’t backing down because seeing dead people makes him “look crazy.” With this scene we are sent on a mind bend that is humorous and leaves us wondering: is this entire journey happening or is this some crazed dream of his?
After Charlie is released, he sees a young woman sitting in the security area, weeping with her black eye makeup running down her face. In her hands she holds the hat Victor showed Charlie. It is Gabi and Charlie makes good on his promise to Victor. Suddenly, some of the questions are answered: this is reality and Charlie is special. Charlie’s gift of second sight is becoming clarified and the filmmaker anchors us to Charlie’s realm and perceptions showing us that Charlie is accepting whatever life puts before him because he’s seen death and the end of one kind of existence. Of what can he be afraid?
The more Charlie talks about Victor to Gabi and lets her rest her head on his chest, the last place where Victor lived and died, the more he becomes convinced that Gabi is why his mom wanted him to come to Bucharest. He becomes invested in Gabi during these moments and after asking her where he can stay, indicates that he wants to see her again and will seek her out because of the strange and fateful events that brought them together. Credit goes to LaBeouf and filmmakers for intimating the next steps, that Charlie will try to establish a relationship with this beautiful woman who also has lost someone dear to her, whose last words spoken were heard by Charlie.
The scene in the airport is a turning point and redirects the random-fated events that follow in part with humor and certainly with edgy mystery and drama. Gabi has connected Charlie with his fate, and helps to solidify his perceptions and life purpose. As events unfold, she becomes the most vital person in his life, inspiring him to understand who he is and how he must define himself. Because of Gabi, Charlie learns what is valuable to help him determine what he is willing to live and die for. It is a life lesson which others in the film perhaps may never learn. But we have been shown that Charlie is special; LaBeouf rounds out his character and makes him live. He makes what others would deem irrational, that which makes complete sense. For Gabi, Charlie functions in a refreshing way because he is the antithesis of what she thought she wanted. She comes to realize perhaps he is what she needs. Maybe he will rescue her and enable her to appreciate that freedom is a choice she can make to extricate herself from destructive relationships.
This all comes about through circuitous events which take Charlie through the highs and lows of this beautiful and dangerous city in pursuit of Gabi. He hob nobs with the cultured and bumps into the slimy. In the process he stumbles upon secrets that endanger his life. The clues Victor dropped to him on the flight come back to haunt him and he is forced to question if Gabi is who she says she is. But by then it is too late. He loves her and his life is enriched by knowing her, so he will take her regardless of the nature of the secrets and lies. But the intrigue runs deep, perhaps too deep for him to handle. How does Gabi, a cellist who plays in a symphony and who is beautiful and cultured end up married to a frightening gangster like Nigel (a great performance by Mads Mikkelsen)? How does she end up running with the likes of a scary thug and club owner Darko (the fine Til Schweiger)? Discovering the mysteries related to Gabi propels Charley over rooftops and down dark streets of Bucharest running from Darko’s gang of thugs and jealous, frightening Nigel. Charlie is hooked with loving Gabi, but is it too late? Can she be trusted to love him back or be the end of him?
We hope Charlie will escape, but prior to one of the exhausting chases through Bucharest, Charlie’s mom appears to him. She admits she’s a screw-up; she meant Budapest, Hungary and got it confused with Bucharest, Romania. So this journey was a huge mistake and Charlie is left holding his ebbing life in his hands, not following a glorious destiny but a miscreant’s doom. In the same scene his mom warns him that he’s in danger and she is afraid he will die in Bucharest. This is the final demonstration of Charlie’s second sight and then she vanishes.
Charlie Countryman is a fine, surprising film because of the off-beat character Charlie, seemingly serendipitous events, the quirky plot and the excellent acting of LaBeouf and the ensemble who assists him. This is an honorable first time by Bond; his production elements are apt. The music by Moby is well chosen and beautiful and the cinematography and color palate contribute to making this an edgy, gritty Bucharest that portends danger and compels our engagement and excitement. Critics have dunned this film as a “mess.” To each his own. The films are becoming more cross genre and the audience would have even been better, to my mind, if the film hadn’t been tampered with after its showing at Sundance 2013.
Spoiler Alert About the Assets
The assets including the deleted scenes, John Hurt’s narration, the alternate opening and ending are a must see because the entire nature of the film is clarified and intensified. Actually, all of them should have been included, even the scenes with the street people (taxi driver and map guy) because they help to provide important background information of the city’s underbelly and how Charlie is able to interact, They also show his growth and development. The film’s mystery is not dampened by the Hurt narration. It forces the audience to a greater emotional engagement. Additionally, an explanation for the whimsey/magical realism of the spiritual element is strengthened. For those who need it, a logical explanation is given, though perhaps it is not completely consistent throughout the film. Whether the deletions and change of the title were done out of the wisdom of the distributors or at someone else’s behest, the film’s fine points are impaired and the filmmaker’s intentions undercut. Certainly, John Hurt’s magnificent narration should have been left in. But thankfully, it is included in the assets so American audiences can decide for themselves which they prefer.
Charlie Countryman will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 21st.