Man Down is from director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) and roams a seemingly post-apocalyptic American landscape in which a former Marine named Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) returns from his tour in Afghanistan and searches for his lost son (Charlie Shotwell). He is aided by his best friend Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), a fellow soldier with a shoot-first mentality. Via flashbacks, we see Drummer as a family man, with his wife Natalie (Kate Mara), sharing the loving bond between father and son that is rooted in the passing along of a working-class masculine identity. The title, in fact, stems not from the rallying cry to alert troops to a fallen soldier on the battlefield, but rather the code developed between Drummer and son to express their uncompromised love for one another.
As the fractured narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Drummer’s perspective warrants questioning by the audience. But LaBeouf compellingly grounds us in the immediacy of the character’s beliefs and the fragmented pieces of the psyche that he’s attempting to put back together. Although Man Down pre-dates his equally compelling (albeit far more naturalistic work) in American Honey, it shows LaBeouf’s desire to stretch himself as a performer, pursuing roles that require more compulsive and psychologically challenging effort, and allows us to forget the antics connected to his celebrity.
And as much as the film spotlights LaBeouf, it also showcases the hardnosed, edgy sensibilities of Montiel. There is nothing glossy or sentimental in a single frame of his films. Instead, he captures the hunger of his characters and the desperation of the very environment. Man Down wanders in the ragged wasteland a bit too much for my tastes (it creates the sense that his version of the war in Afghanistan has somehow found its way directly into the American heartland, without fully exploring the implications). But the portrayal of someone struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder brings the personal toll of war into sharp focus. (Opens Friday at area theaters) (R) Grade: B-