Man Down is one of the most annoyingly confusing movies you’re likely come across this year. It has all the tools at it’s disposal for a profound experience and squanders it all for cheap gimmicks that muddle the message. This is all the more maddening because the subject matter is incredibly important, and this film is a giant mess, unable to configure a narrative to display a coherent story surrounding a moral that, societally, needs addressing.
Director Dito Montiel elects to push a disjunctive structure, frustratingly told in disjointed flashbacks and flash forwards, where our only time keeper is Shia Labeouf’s unkempt beard. The film jumps all over and without warning between Bootcamp, civilian life, an Afghanistan battleground and post apocalyptic America. If that doesn’t sound confusing to you, then you are in the minority and apparently, you are the target audience here. Monteil creating an abstract conceit is what absolutely destroys the poignant lessons that should have been front and center.
Shia Labeouf is fantastic, making Man Down’s ineptitude all the more damning. Labeouf is continually anchored by a convoluted story, intent on keeping his character at arm’s length from the audience, dissipating any real empathy that could have been drummed up. He plays Lance Corporal Gabe, a marine that enlists alongside his best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) at the behest of his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and son. We are introduced to Gabe and Devin in their full bearded post apocalyptic forms walking through a dystopian American wasteland. In the first act Gabe is sat before a military psychologist (Gary Oldman) to discuss traumatic events alluded to enigmatically. From here the story snake tails in and out of separate set pieces that are meant as misdirect, but the smokescreens just make the film aimlessly chaotic.
The scenes in the psychologists den play like an interrogation about “the incident” where Gabe stands stoic, reluctant to comment on what preceded this encounter. We then shift to basic training where Gabe and Devin are tested and battle hardened by a hard nosed drill sergeant. Then some early interaction between Gabe and Natalie as she shaves his head. The playful banter provides some insight into their relationship, but the chemistry between Labeouf and Mara never feels real, however their talents as actors carry them through the more awkward dialogue they’re forced to deliver. The best scenes in Man Down are between Gabe and his son. The emotional brunt is detained in these small vignettes that give an insider’s look into a military father and his extremely delicate yet deep bond to his child. The admiration exudes from the youngster’s eyes and these are tear jerking and sincerely emotional moments, that keep the film alive when the rest of the story tries so hard to bury the lead.
We do another about face and find ourselves back in the counselor’s office. Gabe sheds a single tear as we begin to dissolve the fog and learn what the story is all about. It’s the whiplashing and meandering that rip this movie to pieces, effectively making it seem like several different stories weaved into one narrative. All of this would make more sense if it wasn’t the account of just one man. The mystery makes it impossible for the audience to create any emotional ties with Gabe, or his family. The most beautiful moments between Gabe and his son come few and far between and the rest of the interactions are just stalling for the climax.
You will spend a bulk of the films run time trying to play catch up until the extremely emotional and revealing final frames. By then it will be too late, and the climax will hit you like a ton of bricks, but it won’t have the resonance it’s meant to, thanks to 80 minutes of directorial hotdogging. Labeouf turns in one of the most layered and nuanced performances of his very promising career and it’s all for not. He is let down again and again by a poor script, an overly ambitious director, and a supporting cast that doesn’t live up to his potential.
This is a story that deserves a more pointed vision. The non linear narrative veils important details that could have provided a vibrant and intense look into Gabe as a man, and the very difficult situation he encountered. The overarching narrative of the film revolves around the harsh reality that veterans face when they return home from war, but the crux is glossed over by a winding psychological riff that takes way too long to reach its heart. Man Down is a film with a moral that deserves to be told with true fervor, not this strange muddled attempt that doesn’t seem to take the issues it means to spotlight seriously enough. However honorable the intent, Montiel completely blew an opportunity and lost the emotional impact in the process.
1.75/5 Not Cool Bro