Who would’ve thought that a quasi-forgotten, distribution-delayed indie flop was going to deliver Shia LaBeouf’s best performance to date, at least in yours truly’s modest opinion. Forget about Fury (where he’s also really good by the way) because it’s The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman that showcases the essence and the instinctual, mad nature of Shia’s undeniable talent. And to think that initially he had dropped out of this project with Zac Efron getting attached to replace him. Then you bet with that casting Charlie Countryman would’ve resulted in a total disaster.
After premiering at Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, and being released Stateside in November 2013 to not exactly raving reviews or box office success, this odd mix of genres with an undoubtedly intriguing title is the feature film debut of Swedish director Fredrik Bond who has established himself as a quite successful, prolific and award-winning commercial filmmaker. And indeed Bond shows he’s got the goods to deliver his vision on the silver screen. The main issues with the film are mostly related to Matt Drake’s screenplay that’s equally ambitious and flawed.
To promptly make sure we know they’re not messing about when they put “death” in the title, the film begins with our protagonist, Charlie Countryman (LaBeouf), beaten to a pulp and dangling off a crane by one leg above a dam, water below him and a gun pointed at him by an unseen person ready to pull the trigger.
As a shot rings out we flash back to Chicago where Charlie is accompanying his father (Vincent D’Onofrio) to the hospital where his mother (Melissa Leo) lies comatose. It’s unclear what happened to her, not that it really matters, as the doctors have summoned the family to “unplug” her. The moment is inevitable, yet devastating and emotionally charged.
Charlie not only has a weird vision of a glowing floating matter slipping out of his mother’s mouth and getting dispersed in the air as she flatlines but when he runs out of the room and finds a lonely corner to cry by himself, she actually appears to him in what’s quite a touching scene.
Since Charlie’s last memory of her is of when she collapsed, his mum makes sure to change that to when he was a child and they were happily playing on a pier. Before disappearing, she also tells him to travel and suggests Bucharest as a destination. And so Charlie, disoriented about his life, recently dumped by his girlfriend and saddened by the loss of his beloved mother, embarks on a journey of self-discovery to Romania.
From then on the film becomes a picaresque adventure that literally starts on Charlie's flight to Bucharest where he meets a nice man named Victor who’s returning home to his daughter after seeing the Cubs playing. But Victor dies on the plane, sitting next to Charlie and appears again from the dead to ask him the favour of making sure his daughter Gabi gets his gift and also to pass a loving message to her.
When Charlie meets a distraught Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) at the Bucharest airport, it’s obvious how Cupid immediately strikes his arrow and Charlie’s journey is bound to become a quest for love. But like in every good cinematic adventure, love inevitably means danger, as the object of Charlie’s affection is a mysterious, gorgeously exotic cello player who’s tangled up in an ill marriage.
Gabi’s husband, Nigel, played with exceptionally calm and composed villainy by the always outstanding Danish talent Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) is a gangster-like figure who’s utterly pissed about Gabi leaving him and becomes more so when he finds out about her new American suitor. The vicious man is also after Gabi because of an incriminating tape Gabi’s father got his hands on before dying where Nigel is immortalized executing a massacre together with gangster and club owner Darko (Til Schweiger).
As Charlie relentlessly chases after Gabi to win her heart, he gets caught in her dangerous affairs and bumps into a few grotesque characters along the way like his two nerdy-druggie hostel roommates Luc (The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley) and Karl (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint) who involve him in acid trips and other typical young tourists' shenanigans.
But Charlie is convinced of his love at first sight for this girl and is ready to risk it all as his crazy journey bookends where it started, with him dangling off the crane, ready to meet his maker. If he survives or not, you’ll have to find out. Surely he’s determined like only one crazy romantic would be as he utters the line: “If I do die… I died for love. It’d be a pretty fucking cool way to go.”
Oddly mixing different genres that make for a modern romantic epic poem infused with fantasy and thriller elements and a sprinkle of offbeat humour, Charlie Countryman surely doesn't lack the courage to be bold despite the result not being convincing. Probably it’s because the script feels too rushed at establishing the set up hence Charlie's motivation for his journey feels sloppy.
Director Friedrik Bond shows good visual ideas and definitely potential, however his declared inspirations for the film such as True Romance, Wild At Heart, Slumdog Millionaire and even Trainspotting, seem to not have had the influence he was aiming for. The soundtrack is deeply infectious and surely helps define the mood of the film both with the original score and songs form Moby, M83 and The XX. However it winds up helping its kinetic visual style more than its emotional palette.
What the filmmakers had envisioned to have the potential of becoming a generation-defining hit movie, unfortunately doesn’t come to fruition. Yet Charlie Countryman is thoroughly entertaining thanks to its wonderful cast. Mads Mikkelssen is as vicious a villain as ever, Evan Rachel Wood is quite alluring and spot-on with her Romanian accent but it's Shia LaBeouf who impresses with a role that seems to perfectly fit and amplify his real life crazy antics. Once again, I dare say: his most genuine and effective performance yet.
The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman is out in UK cinemas on October 31st
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor