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When you start a decade with a bad Wall Street sequel and a worse Transformers sequel, going anywhere counts as “up.” So even though Shia LaBeouf’s career has lately taken an unusual trajectory—call it avant-garde if you’re kind—his decision to refocus his career on independent films and narcissistic performance art and Sia videos at least counts as interesting. There are actors LaBeouf’s age who have three franchises and zero identity. Consider, like, Jai Courtney, the star of the worst Die Hard and the worst Terminator and whatever Insurgent was.
Fatefully, LaBeouf and Courtney star together in Man Down, a uniquely unpleasant mash-up of moody post-apocalyptic adventure and moodier wartime melodrama. LaBeouf plays Gabriel, a marine struggling to find his family in a wasteland while also struggling through PTSD. The film’s structure is heavy on flashback montages shot like death-metal music videos, so we also see Gabriel struggle through the fighting in in Afghanistan, and watch him struggle to connect with his patient wife (Kate Mara) and adorable son (Charlie Shotwell). Courtney plays Devin, Gabriel’s best friend with a secret. In the flashback scenes they have matching jarhead cuts; in the end-of-the-world scenes, they play Who Can Grow The Bigger College Beard.
Gabriel is the introvert. It should be an ideal role for LaBeouf, whose eyes have a resting-face haunted look, like he’s always half-scared to breathe. But the performance feels familiar in the worst way. There was a time when every young actor with the Method on their mind did a Marlon Brando impression. Now they do a Tom Hardy impersonation—spitting, sweating, mumbling, giving off the general affect of a bear doing a rat impression. LaBeouf’s mournful mumbles are particularly incoherent, locking us outside of whatever Gabriel’s journey is supposed to be.
Then again, “incoherent” seems to be the main creative idea of Man Down. Director Dito Montiel splinter’s the film’s story on multiple tracks, in a truly shameless and incredibly obvious effort to protect a Big Twist. LaBeouf tries hard to carry the film’s emotional weight, but Man Down‘s diffuse structure undercuts his performance: You’re never sure what stage of Gabriel’s downward spiral we’re looking at. Theoretically, Courtney’s playing the hothead pal, but the film’s too self-serious for real humor. (Gary Oldman pops up throughout as some kind of military guy doing some kind of inquisition; I’m not sure he ever stands up.)
Man Down wants to be a sensitive portrait of modern-day PTSD, a fine subject that’s rarely explored in-depth. Back in 2008, Kimberley Pierce directed Stop-Loss, a flawed but invigorating portrait of young men trapped in the forever war. That film had characters radiating raw humanity: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a quietly tortured head case, Channing Tatum as a jock-ish good ol’ boy following orders to oblivion, Ryan Phllippe as an average guy trapped in a Kafka-worthy military bureaucracy.
Man Down‘s fantastical storytelling undercuts any attempt at humanity. And any good intentions are undercut by its truly horrible ones. By mixing a sensitive portrait of psychological trauma with a sub-Fear the Walking Dead apocalyptic trudge, the film manages to split the difference in the worst way. The flashbacks feel shameless; the apocalypse just looks dumb. Then comes the Big Twist. Suffice it to say: I support LaBeouf’s willingness to be bold, but I wish he could find something bolder than a gym-bro reboot of Jacob’s Ladder. D+