If you’ve seen American Sniper, or Full Metal Jacket, or Brothers, or really any war film for that matter, chances are you’ve already seen Man Down, the latest vehicle for Shia Labeouf. Gabriel Drummer (Labeouf) is just about as standard as any movie Marine, as we see him: flash back to memories of his loving wife (Kate Mara) and son, suffer relentless abuse from the apoplectic drill sergeant, engage in horrific Afghanistan shootouts and suffer through the most popular character development of the recent war picture, PTSD.
The movie has four narrative threads, all of which follow Drummer. There’s one of his family life leading up to his enrollment, one depicting his service, another recounting said service with Captain Peyton (Gary Oldman) and finally one depicting a post-apocalyptic America, where humanity is wiped out form an unknown disease. In this last thread, Drummer and his loyal war buddy, Devin (Jai Courtney) roam his decrepit hometown searching for his family. If you’re like me, you probably noticed that one of these parts is not like the others. And this science-fictiony part does feel out of place, especially as the editing shambles these threads haphazardly. The film would have been better if it chose one or two of these plots, but it insists on all four to tell a story of Drummer’s PTSD.
Though he tries to deliver a heart-wrenching morality tale of veteran hardship post-war, director Dito Montiel gives us a movie that lacks a certain freshness, mostly due to Adam G. Simon’s script, which is filled with no lack of genre clichés. PTSD is, once again, used as a replacement for character development, a la Sniper.
I wish filmmakers would strive to make the PTSD tendencies one of many facets of soldiers depicted in their movies (rather than just one) in order to make them interesting or compelling. Subtlety is often lost when the development of a character depends on the most basic of emotions. Occasionally, it works (look at any Disney film), but like in Man Down, these moves feel cheap because you know it’s trying hard for a reaction from the audience. The makers want you to scream or cry or applaud not by merit of the story, but because they dictate it.
There’s a scene in the film that is played like a surprise, but it isn’t really, so I’ll tell you about it. When touring in an Afghanistan town, Drummer and his regiment are suddenly fired upon from a nearby building. The Americans soon fire back and though it appears they incapacitate the Arabs, they are soon ambushed by a second round of fire, coming from underneath the floor panels. Drummer instinctively fires back, but he discovers that the shooters were a woman and her son. Montiel lingers on their bloodied faces as if to show us the brutality of war (and it is rather brutal) but one must wonder if there was any other reason why Montiel chose a woman and child to be killed, if only for dramatic purposes. This is just one of the many uninspired choices for supposedly “stirring” entertainment, and bunching them altogether doesn’t work.
What does work are the actors, especially Labeouf’s. What a solid actor he is in this movie, able to switch between supportive father or heartbroken soldier, depending on the scene. He’s so convincing for an unconvincing character and makes up so much for the screenplay’s faults that you wish his performance belonged to a superior picture.
Written by: Adam G. Simon
Directed by: Dito Montiel
Starring: Shia Labeouf, Kate Mara, Gary Oldman, Jai Courtney
Distributed by: Lionsgate Entertainment