'Man Down' Soldiers Forth As Jumbled, Bleak Portrait of PTSD



Directed by: Dito Montiel; Runtime 90 minutes
Grade: C-

The purpose of a movie's message shares a complicated relationship with its execution, where the noble intentions themselves in bringing a significant, unsettling topic to the big screen can distract from how the ideas actually come together. Encased within depictions of rigorous military training and a post-apocalyptic atmosphere that could utilize such training, Man Down sets its sights on illustrating the mental demands of combat upon young soldiers, cautiously and methodically approaching a depiction of post-traumatic stress. Drawing more attention to such a prevalent issue as PTSD, and realizing it in the inventive fashion that co-writer/director Dito Montiel has done, deserves recognition and respect; however, that doesn't pardon Man Down for the overly bleak steps it takes to underscore its points, transforming what looks like an apocalyptic soldierly action movie on the outside into a sluggishly-paced, scattershot and redundantly grim portrait of psychological turmoil.

It's likely that Shia Labeouf wanted to revisit the mental space and demands of military drama that he experienced in Fury -- his "self-inflicted scars" can be spotted in many of the film's close-ups -- as he takes up arms to play Marine enlistee Gabriel Drummer. The first glimpse offered of Drummer shows him infiltrating a building in search of his son, showcasing the soldier's capabilities within a shadowy, dilapidated building. From there, Man Down skips around in chronology, revealing when Drummer enlisted into the Marines alongside his childhood friend, Devin (Jai Courtney), the combat situations he experienced while in the Middle East, and an evaluation of his psychological state by a military counselor (Gary Oldman). Between all that, a glimpse is given at the state of the current world around Drummer: a post-apocalyptic landscape through which he's navigating in search of his son and wife (Kate Mara), leading back to the film's opening scene.

The deliberate jumbling of timelines in Man Down ends up being both intriguing and taxing at the same time, skipping around between domestic character moments with Drummer's family, the harsh demands of military training and combat, and the crumbled landscape of a post-war America. For a while, however, that apocalyptic vision comes across as a perplexing tacked-on footnote, an unnecessary hook that constantly begs for an explanation alongside the earnest depiction of Drummer's experiences with the Marines. This is a bit odd considering the intentions that the film initially projects in terms of what it's about, yet that also falls in line with Dito Montiel's true aims for his character portrait, which are less focused on catching the audience up with how America got to a wasteland-like state and more concerned with portraying Drummer's personal struggles. Despite fiercely realistic boot camp sequences, an authentic firefight in Afghanistan, and a tense confrontation involving a drifter -- played by the reliable suspiciousness of Clifton Collins Jr. -- these muddled timelines and restrained action result in lethargic, unfocused progression.

There's a lot of complexity to the mental state of Gabriel Drummer, influenced by his experiences starting from when he enlisted and following through to the infiltration depicted in the film's beginning, providing an intense internal battle for Shia Labeouf while he's still wired for military drama. Labeouf's sharpened eyes, shaky hands, and intense body language credibly depict that of a contemporary soldier who's endured the line of duty, while his confident poise in the past and weathered fury in the post-apocalyptic future showcase three stark, distinct stages of his personality. Jai Courtney provides a stable, charismatic counterbalance as Drummer's childhood friend, Devin, forming a convincing bond with Labeouf as they endure together the rigors of warfare and the hostile landscape of this transformed America. Kate Mara as Drummer's wife and Gary Oldman as his mental-health advisor aren't given many opportunities to shine as those navigating the shifts in his behavior, but each one endures a make-or-break moment in conversations with the soldier that are elevated by their talents.

Man Down operates around this drama involved with the demands of combat training, cooperation, and battle complications upon the soldier's psyche, which inherently gravitates around grim considerations and timely reflections upon the state of military veterans in the United States. That wasn't enough for Dito Montiel and his co-writer Adam G. Simon, though: the raw power of the messages in their depiction of Drummer are weakened by unnecessary, doubled-down somberness involving marital infidelity and overzealous distortions of what's really going on around the soldier. This is very much a message-driven piece of work, one that intermittently shows respect to the issues of post-trauma stress and suicidal tendencies as they relate to those who've fought for their country, but the urge to go bigger and bolder with its bleakness ultimately obscures and distracts from this poignancy. By the end, once Man Down catches back up to the scene of Drummer swooping into a facility to rescue his boy, it's become an exhausting, unpleasant mission that isn't as rewarding or exhilarating to undertake as it could've been.

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