Shia LeBeouf was an omnipresent nuisance on movie screens throughout the 2000s, the relentlessly mugging human face of the Transformers franchise and a key contributor to the cinematic stain known as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But give the guy some credit: he went cold turkey from franchise dreck ever since 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and started taking more risks by working with interesting directors like Lars von Trier, John Hillcoat, David Ayer and Andrea Arnold.
The performances and the films are gradually getting better (I would even say that LeBeouf was downright good in Arnold’s almost-great American Honey), but they can’t all be winners. Man Down premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015, where it was greeted with largely negative reviews, and the film only premiered in theaters last Friday. Unlike a fine wine, Man Down did not improve with age, although it’s at least as curiously flawed and pseudo-ambitious as most of the December releases currently getting touted as awards contenders.
Man Down director and co-writer Dito Montiel was an early LeBeouf adopter, casting the actor as a young version of himself in his 2005 autobiographical effort A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Here, LeBeouf plays Gabriel Drummer, a troubled veteran searching for his child in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with his best friend and battle buddy Devin (Jai Courtney) fighting by his side. Meanwhile, the film continuously flashes back to Gabriel’s prewar life with his wife (Kate Mara) and child, as well as to wartime sessions with an army therapist (Gary Oldman) who keeps referencing an “incident.”
Montiel and cinematographer Shelly Johnson (The Expendables 2) favor a drab, washed-out color palette for the post-apocalyptic scenes, and a slightly less drab, slightly less washed-out color palette for the pre-apocalyptic scenes. LeBeouf works his tail off, although too often he seems abandoned and unchecked by the director, while Mara and Oldman offer sturdy, professional-grade support. Unfortunately, the style of Man Down is wan and indecisive, and the scenes are meandering and shapeless, with only the puzzle box structure of the story left to hold the viewer’s interest.
We get snippets of information about the reasons that America has turned into a literal scorched earth, with vague suggestions of terrorist retaliation, deadly viruses, weapons of mass destruction and more. Montiel teases out a twist that most viewers will figure out pretty early in the film, and then largely botches the reveal. Without digging into spoilers, it’s fair to say that the film’s depiction of PTSD does a disservice to the reality that veterans face.
I’m a firm believer in the power of “disreputable” films and genres to capture a more uncomfortable truth than the high-minded awards-grubbers would ever even attempt, but this is pretty shameless. Of course, that doesn’t stop Man Down from closing with a solemn list of statistics about PTSD and veteran suicide, as though its heart was in the right place all along.