Review: Man Down
PLOT: After serving an emotionally-devastating tour in Afghanistan, a soldier returns to America to find his home has become a different kind of war zone.
REVIEW: MAN DOWN is an admirably ambitious but hopelessly muddled examination of the effects of PTSD on soldiers traumatized by what they've seen and done overseas. Something of a much darker and demanding cousin to Ang Lee's BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK, the film takes an almost experimental approach to its narrative, which is fractured into three or four different parts - one of which is a gloomy post-apocalyptic scenario that will have people scratching their heads. It is, no doubt, a challenging experience for the viewer, and for a time I appreciated director Dito Montiel's abstract vision and the message he was attempting to impart. But once all of its cards are on the table and you take a step back to look at the big picture, MAN DOWN is definitely more miss than hit.
The film's protagonist is Gabe Drummer (Shia LaBeouf, in another reliably intense performances), and when we meet him he's entering a decrepit warehouse, rescuing his son from unseen hostile enemies. Before long it becomes clear that Gabe and his best friend and comrade Devin (Jai Courtney) are living in some kind of grim dystopian wasteland; apparently America has been taken down by... well, we don't know who or what. Then a series of flashbacks begin and we receive glimpses of Gabe's existence before this unnamed calamity: His life as an all-American husband to Natalie (Kate Mara) and dad to Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell) is shown to be rather routine. Just as routine is his eventual transition into basic training with bestie Devin by his side. These flashbacks are intercut with another, longer one: a psychiatric exam with the concerned Capt. Peyton (Gary Oldman, underplaying things for once), who speaks in calm tones with Gabe about an "incident" that happened in Afghanistan. By this time we see Gabe has already been shaken by his time in the service, but Montiel and co-writer Adam Simon refuse to give us many hints as to what triggered Gabe's troubled state of mind. Furthermore, whatever is happening in the post-apocalyptic "present," where Gabe and Devin prowl the ruined streets of the U.S., is also kept a secret for much of the running time.
This storytelling trickery is at once key to MAN DOWN's uniqueness and also its detriment. For a movie that is ostensibly about the struggle of a soldier returning home from battle, Montiel and Simon go to great lengths to keep us unbalanced and unsure of what we're watching. For a time, it's intriguing. We're curious about both the strange new world Gabe and Devin traverse, as well as the mysterious incident that so mightily damaged Gabe while in battle (more flashbacks are dispatched to finally reveal what happened there, too). But the truth is, MAN DOWN is mostly just spinning its wheels, waiting to get to a revelation. When all of these pieces are brought together in a third act twist meant to blow us away, MAN DOWN has already become a bit of a chore and following its many narrative threads has been more trouble than it was worth. Add to that a hopelessly treacly conclusion that is more manipulative than organic, and MAN DOWN leaves you feeling a bit like a woozy soldier yourself, stumbling out of a dourly chaotic landscape.
Much credit should be given to LaBeouf, who once again proves he's no joke when it comes to crafting an emotionally complex character. Though Gabe is a bit of a heavy-handed character no matter what timeline he's in, LaBeouf never seems anything less than committed. He plays the gruffly lovable man of the house just as well as he does the morose, disturbed individual whose life will never be the same. It's still easy to point at LeBeouf's offscreen antics and snicker (although it would appear as though he's curbed those to a degree), but one can't deny LeBeouf is a fascinating actor when he's on the screen, still able to convey boyish charm while also fully capable of traveling down some rather dark places to get where he needs to. MAN DOWN reunites the actor with Montiel; they first worked together on one of LaBeouf's breakout roles in A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS. That's a better film than MAN DOWN, but ten years later it's still easy to see what Montiel first understood about the actor: that he's absolutely talented when pointed in the right direction.
Another actor who might be easy to pick on is Jai Courtney, and while he's done himself no favors by appearing in several lame franchises (can you really blame him for taking what Hollywood is offering?), the actor acquits himself very well here in a part that is more complicated than it initially appears. Oldman, as stated, is pretty low-key but brings some of his patented magnetism to a role that is mostly just there for exposition. Similarly, Kate Mara does what she can with a pretty standard "concerned wife" character, but the screenplay neglects to offer her much more than apprehensive/longing glares.
There are a lot of intriguing separate parts to MAN DOWN, but when pieced together they sadly don't make an exceptional whole.
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