‘Man Down’: Venice Review

Man Down Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A strong central performance struggles to emerge from the apocalyptic montage

Shia LaBeouf plays a traumatized Marine returning home from Afghanistan in Dito Montiel’s mixed genre thriller

The trauma faced by a Marine returning home from Afghanistan is intriguingly hyperbolized in Man Down, where the America he comes back to has been destroyed by a mysterious enemy. Shia LaBeouf, who starred in director Dito Montiel’s autobiographical first feature A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is again the main attraction and acquits himself well in a demanding role. But his performance is over-powered by the film’s grandiose, misplaced ambition to switch back and forth between genres, from the war film to sci fi, from family film to the intimately psychological. With an ending as sentimental as they come, this looks like it will make a very quick trip through theatrical for under-30 audiences. 

Montiel already stepped outside his New York comfort zone in last year’s Boulevard, in which Robin Williams played a man who comes to terms with his homosexuality late in life. Here the psyche being explored is the even more complex one of a soldier whose experiences in battle snowball together with a personal betrayal, to turn him into one very screwed-up guy.

The story is told in rapidly alternating flashbacks that soon begin to feel like channel-hopping, switching the mood and undercutting the emotional flow. Only in the last half-hour does it become apparent why they are vital for a particular plot twist that makes sense of everything.

We meet Gabriel (LaBeouf) living in suburbia with his loving wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and tow-headed son Jonathan. In a nicely acted father-and-son scene, they agree to use the code phrase “man down” to say I love you. This picture of domestic bliss wouldn’t be complete without his best buddy Devin (an all-American Jai Courtney), who drags Gabe into the Marine corps with him.  It’s hard to imagine a guy as sweet as Gabe going to war -- a thought that may cross Devin and Natalie’s mind as they watch him horsing around with Jonathan at a children’s birthday party.

Gabe’s soft spot may worry them, but it doesn’t hinder his progress through boot camp at Camp Lejeune under a classically sadistic Marine sergeant. One could have lived without these numbingly familiar training images meant to illustrate the unshakeable bond that exists between Gabe and Devin.

So off to war they go. During a shoot-out in an Afghan village, where local rebels attack an American tank in a scene out of Zero Dark Thirty, it becomes apparent that no amount of training can prepare a soldier to come face-to-face with death. The action shots, virile and effective, are laden with real tension and bring Gabe up against his own inner courage.

The “incident” in the village leads to a long interview with a military authority charged with assessing Gabe’s mental health. Capt. Peyton (Gary Oldman plays the boring old coot) urges him to relive the trauma, and Gabe shows all his mental fragility in a long, key scene which is unfortunately cut up in the editing, so we get it in bits and pieces.

A final scenario is the unexplained presence of Gabe and Devin in post-apocalyptic America, after all life has been destroyed. Shelly Johnson’s expressive cinematography is at its best in these surreal, color-drained shots that impress with their horror. The two men, still dressed in army fatigues, are hunting for Gabe’s wife and son. When they stumble across a lone survivor (Clifton Collins, Jr.) he refuses to tell them anything, but revelation is around the corner in a depressingly schmaltzy ending.     

Production companies: MPower Pictures, Krannel Pictures, Bianry Light
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Kate Mara, Gary Oldman, Jai Courtney, Clifton Collins, Jr., Jose Pablo Cantillo
Director: Dito Montiel

Screenwriters:  Adam Simon, Dito Montiel
Producers:  Patrick Hibler, Stephen McEveety, Jon Burton, Dawn Krantz
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Music: Clint Mansell
Costumes:  Christine Wada, Daniel Lester
Editors: Jake Pushinsky, Mark Yoshikawa
Sales Agent: The Solution Entertainment
92 minutes