Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 28, 2017)
After the experimental American Honey, Shia LaBeouf appears in another untraditional tale via 2016’s Man Down. Marine Gabriel Drummer (LaBeouf) serves in Afghanistan and returns home.
When he gets back, though, Gabriel finds a situation no better than what he saw in combat. Faced with a land affected by an apocalyptic event, Gabriel entreats his fellow Marine pal Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney) to help find Gabriel’s missing wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and son Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell).
Take that synopsis with a grain of salt – or maybe an entire block of salt – as it doesn’t summarize the non-linear narrative of Man Down especially well. I throw it out because it delivers the literal story on display, but the overview leaves out twists that I think fall into “spoiler” territory.
To be sure, the film doesn’t follow the path I expected based on the Blu-ray’s packaging and publicity materials. The disc’s cover leaves us with the impression it’ll be a fairly standard war movie, while the tagline “he’s coming home to the war he never left” implies something along the lines of American Sniper.
Although Down enjoys some similarities with its predecessors, it comes with more than a few differences, mainly related to the non-linear way it gets into its story – and the non-literal take on the subject matter. Without any spoilers involved, one should realize that much of the film’s events don’t portray an accurate objective reality, as we see matters viewed from Gabriel’s traumatized point of view.
I like that theme, especially because it takes awhile for this orientation to become clear. Though the movie flits from one area and time period to another with alacrity, it doesn’t immediately seem obvious that much of what we observe comes through Gabriel’s distorted lens.
This doesn’t mean we can’t objectively believe anything we see, but we need to interpret events based on the realization that much of what we watch didn’t happen in the literal sense. Again, this involves too many spoilers to discuss in detail, but it becomes a major factor.
As much as I respect this unusual and ambitious exploration of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its impact on soldiers, I’m not sure how well Man Down delves into the material. Some of that comes from the number of plot threads it attempts to include, as we get an awful lot of subtopics for such a short movie.
At times, Man Down can feel like a collection of plot threads in search of a real narrative. It packs in too many story bits, as it covers basic training, Gabriel’s relationship with his son, combat in Afghanistan, his search for his family, an investigation after one fateful battle, and his friendship with Devin.
Perhaps a longer movie could handle all these components, but Man Down clocks in at a mere 90 minutes, so the various threads lack much breathing room. The film tends to rush through different domains so quickly that they don’t stick with us like they should.
Still, I like the movie’s ambition, and it boasts good acting. Though the script doesn’t give Gabriel a ton of depth, LaBeouf portrays him well and adds to the character in ways not on the printed page. A solid cast with pros like Gary Oldman, Kate Mara and Clifton Collins brings substance to the proceedings as well.
Ultimately, Man Down turns into something of a mixed bag. I respect much of its and appreciate its attempts to create an unusual take on the impact of combat, but the end result doesn’t connect as clearly as it should. Still, it’s an ambitious flick that deserves credit for its reach, even if it only occasionally connects.