War is hell, and coming home isn’t exactly paradise either in Man Down, a post-apocalyptic post-traumatic stress disorder thriller from director Dito Montiel. Montiel is clearly setting out to use metaphor and symbolism to convey the very-real plight real soldiers face when they return from battle, and to underscore this, he’s sure to put up some text-on-screen statistics that detail the alarming suicide rate among members of the military. But before we can get to that text, we have to slog through a clunky, unfocused narrative that strains credibility and credulity in equal measure.
Man Down jumps between three different timelines: in one timeline, we meet Gabe Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) as a loving family man training to become a Marine; in another, we see Gabe going through an awkward, uncomfortable therapy session with Counselor Peyton (Gary Oldman) following an “incident” in battle; and in the third timeline, Gabe — heavily bearded and wild eyed — wanders across a bombed-out American wasteland, trying to find his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and son Johnny (Charlie Shotwell). Man Down clumsily navigates through these settings, while never truly committing to any of them. The most solid segments involve Gabe’s time with Counselor Peyton, mostly due to the dynamic between LaBeouf and Oldman.
Gabe’s home life with his wife and son results in the most cloying segments of the film, with poor Kate Mara forced to stand around and play a housewife. There is a naturalism at play between the family unit, and the way Gabe interacts with his wife and son feels genuine. The problem is, they’re saddled with wooden, unconvincing dialogue that derails their best efforts. The post-apocalyptic segments of the film don’t fare much better, mostly due to some shoddy effects work that looks like rejected test shots for The Road.
Gabe goes through his trials and tribulations alongside his best bud Devin (Jai Courtney), and one of the biggest errors Man Down makes is how this character is handled. It’s clear almost from the start that there’s something of about Devin, and you’ll likely figure out what it is long before the film reveals the truth in what’s supposed to be a shocking, but is instead stale, twist.
What keeps Man Down from being a total misguided mess is LaBeouf. The actor gets a lot of guff for his somewhat bizarre persona and attention-grabbing stunts, but when he wants to he can deliver a unique performance that reminds you why he became a star. LaBeouf brings a tightly-wound intensity mixed with a wounded identity. Seeing LaBeouf’s performance makes one wish Montiel had thrown out all the phony gimmicks and blunt metaphors and instead tried to make an honest portrayal of PTSD with the actor. I have no doubt Montiel had good intentions with this story, but Man Down never rises above its premise, and merely falls flat on its face.