As the credits rolled after the North American première of ‘Man Down,’ debuting at Venice earlier in the year, the moderately packed Roy Thomson Hall rose to their feet for a standing ovation. It wasn’t a collective decision, however. Once the spotlight shone on Director Dito Monteil, perched on the second floor balcony, more began to rise. That’s when everyone seated finally understood – understood that while the film on screen wasn’t deserving of the praise, its awareness towards soldiers suffering from PTSD was.
To critique ‘Man Down’ to its fullest, a massive spoiler warning must be disclosed first. OK? Good. The film tells the non-linear tale of Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf), who suffers an experience so traumatizing that he hallucinates a post apocalyptic America upon returning home. The plot jumps back and forth between Gabriel’s family life with his wife, Natalie (Kate Mara), and young son, Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell), and his time in and after Afghanistan – from therapy sessions with Captain Peyton (Gary Oldman) to the battlefield with wingman Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney).
This flip-flopping technique, employed by Writer Adam G. Simon, is intended to keep us questioning the cause of both America’s and Gabriel’s suffering when they’re one in the same, both literally and metaphorically. Conceptually effective, Simon devotes excess attention to a dull first act that is bogged down with redundant family scenes and even less necessary training sequences. Although both are important to the tragedy of a patriot mentally severed from the love of his family by the demand and intensity of his nation, we don’t need to be seeing the cliché birthday puppy scene after several previous moments between Gabe, Natalie, and Jonathan; nor do we need to witness the extreme training when the anxiety of the shellshock Afghanistan sequence speaks for itself.
To add more convulsions, Simon fruitlessly tacks on an adulteress subplot between Natalie and Devin, which ultimately makes no difference to Gabriel, who’s basically succumbed to his condition upon epiphany, and no sense to neither Natalie nor Devin’s characters since they established loving and brotherly relationships in the aforementioned superfluous first act. And to top this mess of a script off, Simon, for only a brief moment suggests the apocalypse is real over an interrupted newscast – ignoring what is keeping us engaged in the first place. But perhaps the most eminent flaw in ‘Man Down’ is when it finally reveals the ‘cause’ of the apocalypse. A blunder Montiel is equally responsible for, the film actually reuses clips and then pieces the non-linear puzzle together for you. Granted this relays the sufferings of PTSD to a wider audience, it is lethargic filmmaking and insults the amount of attention its hook requires of the viewer.
Transcending the frustrating script, Shia LaBeouf emerges as the movie’s saving grace. Supplying an Oscar-worthy display, LaBeouf finally reaps the rewards of his fateful ‘Transformers’ campaign. A sentence as shocking to write as it is to read, the 29-year old star transfers the same wide-eyed, controlled fervor to a damaged man he’s clearly spent time molding both physically and mentally. His dedication reaches its peak during the climatic home invasion scene, wherein Gabriel attempts to ‘rescue’ his son from his own house. At this point we are finally aware of Gabe’s condition, but observing LaBeouf’s unwavering devotion in the way he strangles a SWAT officer and seeks cover in his own kitchen – moving with dazed familiarity, is made that much more saddening when he hands his terrified son a pack of gummy bears; his favorite food. In my eyes, that final scene is what raised that audience to their feet. If not for any naïve prejudices against Shia, and surely not for the script, ‘Man Down’ deserves a viewing for that sole, heart-wrenching scene alone.
‘Man Down’ receives a 2.5/5.