‘Man Down’ waits too long to de­liver wor­thy mes­sage

Kuwait Times - - WEEKENDER -

Man Down car­ries a poignant mes­sage about Amer­i­can vet­er­ans’ men­tal health needs, but you may give up on the movie be­fore it gets there. Noth­ing is clear un­til the film’s fi­nal mo­ments, which hit with a gut punch just be­fore the cred­its roll. Un­til then, the story is told through dis­jointed flash­backs that make it hard to know what’s go­ing on and who to root for. Di­rec­tor Dito Mon­tiel bounces be­tween boot camp, ac­tive duty in Afghanistan and life in post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Amer­ica, with star Shia LaBeouf’s hair­cut and beard scruff the only real in­di­ca­tor of where we are in time.

LaBeouf’s per­for­mance is pow­er­ful, maybe his best to date, but it’s un­duly bur­dened by an er­ratic story struc­ture that doesn’t en­gen­der em­pa­thy for his char­ac­ter. He plays Gabe, a Ma­rine who en­listed with his life­long best friend, Devin (Jai Court­ney). When we first see the two men, they’re dirty and bearded, not in uni­form, bran­dish­ing guns in a bombed­out city as they des­per­ately look for Gabe’s son. Gabe car­ries a worn pic­ture in his pocket of his wife, Natalie (Kate Mara), and their tow­headed lit­tle boy, Jonathan (Char­lie Shotwell, heart­break­ing in the fi­nal scenes). Sud­denly, uni­formed, clean-shaven Gabe is in an of­fice be­ing ques­tioned by a mil­i­tary coun­selor (Gary Old­man, dis­ap­point­ingly flat). The coun­selor is ask­ing about “the in­ci­dent,” and Gabe is stoic.

Then it’s ba­sic train­ing at Camp Le­je­une, where Gabe and Devin are new re­cruits be­ing tough­ened up by an un­re­lent­ing drill sergeant. Natalie sweetly shaves Gabe’s head as he pre­pares to ship out to Afghanistan. Now, Gabe and Devin are back from the war, bearded and dirty, wan­der­ing dystopian streets and threat­en­ing a home­less man as they look for Gabe’s fam­ily. Now clean-shaven Gabe is driv­ing his son to school as they play­fully de­cide to use the mil­i­tary term “man down” as se­cret code for “I love you.” He prom­ises to send let­ters from Afghanistan. Now stoic Gabe drops a re­luc­tant tear while talk­ing to the mil­i­tary coun­selor.

The good guy

The me­an­der­ing struc­ture cre­ates a lit­tle too much mys­tery for the au­di­ence to know where to place its al­le­giances. Did the Marines have some­thing to do with the dis­ap­pear­ance of Gabe’s son, so Gabe and Devin have gone rogue? Or did Gabe harm his son, and that’s why he’s be­ing ques­tioned by a mil­i­tary coun­selor? That dis­tinc­tion is key if we want to root for the good guy. Screen­writer Adam G. Si­mon’s non­lin­ear story parses out de­tails in such a way that we doesn’t know enough about Gabe’s sit­u­a­tion to ex­pe­ri­ence his emo­tional arc un­til the very end, which feels like a lost op­por­tu­nity given its heart-wrench­ing heft. With­out that con­text, it’s hard to fully ap­pre­ci­ate LaBeouf’s nu­anced per­for­mance. We don’t un­der­stand what we’re look­ing at un­til it’s over.

“Man Down” ul­ti­mately has a lot to say about the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of war and the dis­mal re­al­ity for many vet­er­ans who suf­fer from post-trau­matic stress. It just waits too long to say it. “Man Down,” a Lionsgate re­lease, is rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “some dis­turb­ing vi­o­lence, and lan­guage through­out.” Run­ning time: 92 min­utes. Two stars out of four. — AP

Jai Court­ney, from left, Shia LaBeouf and Kate Mara ar­rive at the Los Angeles pre­miere of “Man Down” at Ar­cLight Cin­e­mas Hol­ly­wood on Wed­nes­day. — AP

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