Quite possibly the most uneven film at Sundance 2013, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman fancies itself a dark fairytale about the all-conquering power of love. Problems abound from the opening scene, which introduces us to the title character (Shia Labeouf) moments before the title event with such John Hurt-narrated pearls of wisdom as “love is pain.” On this and myriad other levels, commercial director Fredrik Bond’s first foray into feature filmmaking aims for profundity but lands closer to platitudes and clichés. That a love story set in Bucharest with shades of fantasy and potentially mob-related intrigue surrounds this foundational flaw makes the film enjoyable for occasional stretches, but Charlie Countryman‘s many bad tendencies announce themselves time and again: questionable use of the exceptional Mads Mikkelsen and Evan Rachel Wood, a candy-coated gloss that’s as distracting as it is aesthetically pleasing, and an enormous disparity between what it’s trying to be and what actually is.
There’s a touch of the fantastical embedded into the all-over-the-map narrative, all of which falls flat and some of which is even cringe-worthy. (I’ve yet to decide whether the ethereal blue stuff floating through the air or Charlie’s habit of communing with his dead mother is worse.) This tonal inconsistency wouldn’t be a deal-breaker unto itself if there were something to hold it all in place, but the film is as much a narrative mess as it is a thematic one.
Taking its fairytale elements as a sign of how we’re meant to absorb it would likewise be useful if the sappy narration and swooning pronouncements on love weren’t so at odds with the frequent sex and violence. Bond’s strong visual sense helps make one sequence through the streets and subway stations of Bucharest work fairly well, but the story it’s in service of almost instantly negates its positive effect.
This is something of a through-line: one scene will seem poised to change course for the better, only for the next to revert back to the film’s earlier (and worse) state. Its heart is in the right place, but Charlie Countryman is so devoted to conveying the irrational whimsy of new love that it’s overly irrational itself.