Movies examining post-traumatic stress disorder and the readjustment difficulties of returning soldiers are a small but resonant offshoot of the war movie genre: Think of Jim Sheridan’s Brothers (2009), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), or Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
The latest film in this tradition is Man Down, directed by Dito Montiel (Fighting), which stars Shia LaBeouf as a soldier returning from war and dealing with his demons. It is, unfortunately, a slight film, more dependent on visual trickery than a solid script for its emotional impact. By its end it’s just frustrating, which works against its apparent aim: to prick the conscience of viewers who don’t care enough about veterans.
Man Down is a tale of a traumatized soldier in a dystopian America
Man Down presents its story in the aftermath of a chemical attack, when Islamic militants have taken over the United States. LaBeouf (who, for all his weird-child reputation, is always interesting to watch) plays Gabriel Drummer, a US Marine who has returned from combat in Afghanistan and is searching for his son Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell) and estranged wife Natalie (Kate Mara) amid the bombed-out landscape. Accompanied by his best friend since childhood, Devin (Jai Courtney), he wanders the dystopian wasteland.
The film is told as a series of intercut scenes from different timelines (denoted by LaBeouf’s increasing beardedness), and so in another timeline, Gabriel is talking with a military therapist (Gary Oldman) about a troubling, potentially violent event he took part in involving civilians and a homeless man in a burned-out housing complex. From their conversation, it seems Gabriel has experienced some psychological trauma — or has he? Is he a hero or a troubled man? These are the questions the film seems to be trying to answer — but instead of making a meaningful point, it takes a mind-numbingly easy way out.
The strongest aspect of Man Down is its earliest timeline, set before Gabriel ships out, which illuminates his family relationships. It’s readily apparent that this man loves his son and wife, which strengthens his character and makes believable his willingness to do anything to save them.
But the film succumbs to a startlingly amateurish construction, pulling the rug out from under the audience in a way that seems calculated to just be annoying. A good twist is an “oh, wow” moment; a bad twist is an “oh, come on” moment — and Man Down’s twist is decidedly of the latter variety. It feels particularly tone-deaf in a movie that’s trying to remind civilians that veterans are undervalued and largely ignored in American society, which is a great point — but the story’s nonlinear time frame and big reveal undermine it completely.
Man Down is most notable for LaBeouf’s performance, but even that can’t save it
In the end, this movie may be most notable for having been still unreleased during LaBeouf’s #AllMyMovies performance-art project last spring, in which he sat in New York’s Angelika theater and watched his entire filmography backward. At the time, Man Down hadn’t been released in theaters — it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2015 — but it played as the first movie, and anyone who showed up got to see it. (The stunt lasted for days and ended with LaBeouf’s work as a kid on the Disney show Even Stevens; images exist of him laughing to the point of tears at his youthful performances.)
This anecdote illustrates something important: No matter the film, LaBeouf has always been an interesting actor, even when his offscreen antics earned him disdain. His performance in this year’s American Honey won deserving plaudits: This is an actor who commits to his roles whole hog, and it shows. Here, he is acting his heart out as a grieved father, loving husband, shattered soldier, and man of war.
Man Down probably could have worked as a showcase for LaBeouf, given the range of emotions and mental states he’s called upon to perform. Instead, the shoddy script renders half his actions nonsensical. Creating an emotional state in the audience only to then change all the rules is unfair, the kind of trick an undergrad film student pulls when he’s still learning and trying to be “arty.”
Man Down feels like watching a feature-length version of an underwritten Black Mirror episode, one in which we’re being lectured as an audience for not caring about veterans enough, then discovering that all our assumptions are off because the movie withheld basic information. Those who stumble across this film might appreciate LaBeouf’s performance — but unfortunately, in the end, it’s one big dud.
Man Down opens in theaters on December 2.