Before I rip into Man Down, I think one thing needs to be made clear: Shia LaBeouf—despite some very questionable choices in his early career that gained him a poor reputation—is genuinely trying to build a decent acting career for himself, and quite frankly he is the best part of this movie. His portrayal of a tortured soldier and devoted family man is believable and heartfelt, so it’s a shame then that it’s featured in a film that so clearly doesn’t deserve it. From the exceedingly dull direction to the frustratingly asinine screenplay, Man Down acts like it wants to shoot for the stars but instead fizzles and tips over on the launch pad.
A plot synopsis is actually incredibly hard to phrase succinctly because the film is desperate to tell its tale in the most convoluted and anachronistic manner possible. There are three distinct time periods that the film portrays: Before main character Gabriel Drummer’s (LaBeouf) deployment as a U.S. Marine, a psychological evaluation in Afghanistan where Drummer is confronted about a wartime incident, and a post-apocalyptic future in America where Drummer and a fellow Marine try to find Drummer’s missing son. The psych evaluation and the future time period act as competing framing devices, so the film jumps between the three sequences of events with reckless abandon, thereby sacrificing coherence for what could have functioned as feverish delusion were it not for the painfully slow pacing and editing.
Because the film demands so much time and attention of its audience in just trying to keep track of what the hell is going on, it becomes near impossible to be invested in any of the film’s characters. Kate Mara does a decent job playing the concerned wife role and Gary Oldman is stern and professional as the officer evaluating Drummer’s psychological condition, but their performances are merely satisfactory and do nothing to save the material they have to work with from its own paper-thin understanding of compelling narrative. Jai Courtney appears as Drummer’s Marine buddy, but Courtney is such a black hole of charisma and screen presence that even though he serves a vital plot function he is an entirely forgettable character.
The film’s third act attempts to tie all its divergent threads together in a way that neither makes sense nor is entirely satisfactory as a resolution, but the film deserves credit for at least trying something novel. The final screen before the credits shows statistics about the number of soldiers who suffer from PTSD and depression who ultimately commit suicide, but Man Down has such a poor understanding of both PTSD and depression that the message comes across as entirely disingenuous. (For the record, there’s no suicide either.) It’s easy to see how the screenwriters thought they were making something fresh and interesting in their little mess of a movie, but their convoluted plotting for a weak twist ending isn’t revelatory; it’s just a bore that ends up making some retroactive sense, but not enough to justify the experience. Mr. LaBeouf needs a better film to bring himself back into cinematic consciousness, because despite his best efforts, this just wasn’t it.