Three days later, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Charlie Countryman. A messy, compelling fever dream of a film, it cleverly blends magical realism and the quest archetype with a Shakespearean love story and pulse-pounding action sequences, but it’s also by no means a home run. Trying to assign the film to a genre proved fruitless, and drawing its plot and characters out on paper in attempt to discern some deeper meaning only left me confused. Clearly, director Fredrik Bond (known for his music videos) prioritized style over substance with his first feature film. And to Bond’s credit, it’s filled with some strikingly beautiful moments. Outside of those moments, however, it’s difficult to get on Charlie Countryman‘s side, given its utter lack of concern for coherent storytelling.
If I had to describe Charlie Countryman to friends, I’d probably call it a dark, trippy fairy tale for adults. After all, there’s a traveling hero (Shia LaBeouf), a damsel in distress (Evan Rachel Wood) and, of course, a fearsome dragon (Mads Mikkelsen) standing in the way of a happy ending for the two.
Like many fairy tales, Charlie Countryman starts with a quest. When the titular character (LaBeouf) loses his mother (Melissa Leo) to a longtime illness, he’s surprised to find a hallucination of her in the hospital hallway. She insists that he travels to Bucharest to find himself and, feeling utterly rudderless, he agrees. When Charlie arrives in the crime-ridden country and immediately falls in love with cellist Gabi (Wood), he’s soon pulled into a nightmarish underworld filled with brutal gangsters, drug-fueled excursions and unexpected spiritual awakenings.
Some people will hate Charlie Countryman for being different. Its extensive use of slow-motion photography and neon-lighting often make it feel like a hypnotic music video, a sentiment strengthened by Moby’s potent, occasionally overpowering score. There’s little by way of Freytag’s Pyramid here; instead, Charlie drifts from location to location, and the camera just wanders with him. Matt Drake’s script, which somehow made the Black List at one point or another, doesn’t offer much in terms of dramatic heft or character development. Charlie meanders through Bucharest, encountering friends and foes before having a grand revelation (never revealed to the audience) that pushes him to place his own life in jeopardy. With many of shots of the city by night and day, Charlie Countryman often watches like a bizarre travelogue, and Drake’s script never does much to help Bond shake off that sense.
LaBeouf, love him or hate him, does throw himself completely into the role of Charlie, as tricky as that challenge is. He’s asked to shift back and forth between playing the hero, brave and clever enough to steal Gabi out from under Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing Nigel, and playing the victim, hapless enough to need some saving of his own at multiple points in the movie. His alternating between possessing an overabundance of balls and no stones whatsoever is a little frustrating for fans of fully-developed movie characters, but all Drake evidently intended him to be was a stranger in a strange land. Luckily, LaBeouf does that very well, taking in the sights of Bucharest with a wide-eyed innocence that’s endearing, never grating. And of course, no review of the actor’s performance would be complete with mentioning the controversy that came when he admitted to tripping on acid before shooting a psychedelic party sequence. Whatever he did to prepare, those drug-powered scenes are both hilarious and deeply unsettling, which feels like the point.
The film’s strong supporting cast ensures that we don’t have to rely on LaBeouf to carry the entire film. As Gabi, Wood is enchanting and exhilarating, even beneath a thick Romanian accent, to the point where you’ll completely understand why Charlie is so instantly smitten with her. Unfortunately, the chemistry that LaBeouf has with Wood feels purely sexual – the idea that she would fall equally head-over-heels for a scrappy American tourist seems all the more shaky for the lack of romantic connection between them.
Mikkelsen does menacing extremely well, lending his ruthless gangster a jolly charisma that makes his outbursts of violence all the more shocking and effective. Til Schweiger, as Darko, of Nigel’s nasty criminal associates, should win awards for his chilling sneer alone, and watching him on-screen with Mikkelsen is a real treat. I found myself rooting for Nigel and Darko more than I did Charlie, but that’s just a tribute to the palpable nastiness of their performances.
In minor supporting roles, The Inbetweeners‘ James Buckley and Harry Potter‘s Rupert Grint both earn belly laughs as Charlie’s quirky hostel mates. Buckley basically plays a variation on his raunchy Jay character, albeit with greasy black hair and full beard, and his bubbly character acts as a great foil to the quiet, thoughtful Charlie. Meanwhile, Grint leaves his Ron Weasley persona far behind as aspiring porn star Boris Pecker, getting some terrific lines during a tense strip-club interrogation at the hands of Darko. Their presence adds some much needed humor to the dark, dreamy main narrative, and I wish that the script had featured more of them.
I can’t say that I loved Charlie Countryman. Its script is middling, and there are some moments that cross the line from weird to flat-out bizarro. However, with Bond’s hallucinatory direction, Moby’s mesmerizing score and Bucharest as a gorgeous, neon-lit backdrop, Charlie Countryman does make for a potent audiovisual experience. There are worse things than an imperfect film that possesses the sheer power to push you headfirst in an eerie, beautiful and dangerous fantasy world, even if just for an hour and a half.
A film as reliant on trippy visuals as Charlie Countryman would be nothing without a strong video transfer, and luckily Millenium Media didn’t drop the ball with their package. The 1080p transfer is more than sufficient to communicate Bond’s psychedelic style. The pulsating, neon-heavy color palette of Bucharest is strongly rendered, and there’s a solid attention to detail throughout that increases the film’s overall visual impact. Even night scenes that feature shadows extensively avoid confusions with contrast or detail. No problems to report with the video quality.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix does a fine job combining Moby’s gorgeous, evocative score with dialogue and background sound effects. Dialogue is typically even and understandable throughout, and background sound effects like sharp crack of gunfire, hum of neon lights and bustle of the subway are all incorporated well. There are only a couple of scenes during which dialogue is difficult to understand, but with so many thick accents and quick banter on display in the film, the track is likely as clear as it was going to get.
The special features on Charlie Countryman include:
- Behind the Scenes
- Deleted Scenes
The Behind the Scenes featurette, which runs 21 minutes, digs into Charlie Countryman‘s difficult journey to the big screen and the film’s unique tone. Featuring interviews with all of the main actors, Bond, Drake and various producers, the featurette is pretty standard stuff, but viewers interested in finding out what drew such a diverse array of talented actors to the film will find it worth checking out. There’s a fair amount of fluff, with various actors patting each other on the back, but segments that discuss the film’s script, tone and filming choices are very interesting. Another interesting note: Charlie Countryman was shot on location in Bucharest, and LaBeouf’s comments about intending to paint the city as a secondary character are particularly intriguing.
The deleted scenes (which run 21 minutes in total) include an alternate opening and ending with extremely silly voiceover narration from the gravel-voiced John Hurt (thank God they got left off the actual film, because both were painfully aggravating to listen to). The voiceover makes Charlie Countryman seem more like a fairy tale, to be sure, but it’s completely unnecessary for the film to work as a whole. Other than the voiceover, both scenes are essentially the same as on the actual film.
Other deleted scenes include an extended sequence of Charlie’s mother dying (with Hurt’s irritating voiceover), a brief discussion between Charlie and his stepfather (Vincent D’Onofrio), a slow-motion airport chase sequence that’s mostly just good for a laugh, a scene of Charlie asking for directions with all the grace of a typical American tourist, a fantasy sequence involving Charlie picturing Gabi in sexualized poses (more than a little bizarre considering the scene takes place when he finds her at her father’s wake), some inconsequential back-and-forth with locals and a brief added scene after the film’s explosive finale. All in all, it’s not a terrible handful of deleted scenes, but there’s nothing that thrilling here either.
Charlie Countryman is not for everyone. Its focus on style over substance, quietly dreamlike atmosphere and ambiguous script will transfix some and alienate others. As for me, I’m still unsure of where I stand on the film, but I know that I’ll be watching it again in the near future in hopes of coming to some kind of consensus. The film is often beautiful, baffling, frustrating and extremely interesting, but where does that leave me? I don’t really know. Millenium’s Blu-Ray package is strong in the audio and visual departments, so if you’re intrigued by the film, Blu-Ray is certainly the right way to go. Whether Charlie Countryman will be the right film for you is a lot less certain.
Charlie Countryman is a hypnotic sensory overload with some strong performances - just don't ask me what it all means.