Review: Man Down (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: A war veteran (Shia LaBeouf) desperately searches for his wife and son in post-apocalyptic America.
REVIEW: I'll say this for director Dito Montiel – he never takes the easy road. From his divisive first film, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS to the much-maligned SON OF NO ONE to his recent BOULEVARD, Montiel is a hugely ambitious director who consistently aims to make art even if the result confounds audiences as much as it entertains them.
MAN DOWN could have easily been his commercial break-through, with Shia LaBeouf still having some solid box-office recognition, and a post-apocalyptic plot that could have easily put butts in seats. Suffice to say, Montiel's film is far from the sci-fi actioner you'd think it is given the premise. Of the ninety minute running time, only a minuscule amount takes place in this waste-land, where a scruffy LaBeouf roams around with his fellow marine (Jai Courtney) and looks for his son.
The vast majority of MAN DOWN takes place prior to all of this, with LaBeouf's shell-shocked soldier telling a compassionate military psychiatrist (Gary Oldman) about his life stateside, where he's a devoted husband and father. The title “Man Down” refers to a code for “I love you” he uses with his son, and LaBeouf's relationship with the child seems affectionate and effective. He has less chemistry with Kate Mara as his wife, mostly due to the fact that her role is underdeveloped, with a key decision that's made from her coming-off as inexplicable, even if it's melodramatically predictable. Jai Courtney doesn't fare much better as his best pal, who convinces family man LaBeouf to enroll with him in the marines, leading them on a violent tour of duty that leaves LaBeouf badly shaken.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Montiel has very little interest in telling a straight-laced action story, with the true message of the film seeking to explore the way America treats its veterans. LaBeouf's far less boyish than he once seemed, with him still bearing the scars from his method face-cutting in FURY. Looking weathered, he's a far cry from his earlier juvenile-leads, but it can't be denied LaBeouf gives the part his all. In fact, he maybe gives it too much.
As evidenced by the stories about him in the press, LaBeouf is a method-guy, but often these types of performances – while interesting – feel a bit like an actor's masturbation. MAN DOWN delves dangerously into this territory at times, with LaBeouf seemingly having been encouraged along by Montiel. As a result, it feels less like a film and more like an actor's exercise. For all of the scenes that work, such as the intense opening and the scenes of LaBeouf and his kids, there are meandering asides and the film goes way off the rails in the finale, which will be easy to see coming provided you pay attention early-on.
While there are admirable things about MAN DOWN, including some of LaBeouf's performance and the excellent score by Clint Mansell, it feels more like an ego-driven experiment more than a movie that's actually meant to entertain, although I have no doubt a small audience out there will appreciate it. It's such a small film that I hesitate to call it a major disappointment, but maybe now that they've got this occasionally clumsy experiment out of their systems Montiel and LaBeouf will make something that's for an audience rather than for themselves.
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