Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: "Man Down"

“Man Down” presents us with a dystopian nightmare, interspersed with flashbacks to what preceded it, and dares us to try to find where the true horror lies.

This ambitious but wandering war drama from director Dito Montiel (“Empire State”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Adam G. Simon, stars Shia LaBeouf as Gabriel, a young but hardened Marine who is searching for his son. As the story opens he and fellow soldier/best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) are wandering a blasted landscape of crumbled buildings and reeking death. Their uniforms are mostly tatters, their buzz cuts have given way to long hair and beards.

Their mission, whatever it once was, is now centered on reuniting Gabriel with his family. We know from flashbacks that they previously served together in Afghanistan, but some colossal misfortune has since befallen the world. They whisper about infections, interrogate a scatterbrained scavenger (Clifton Collins Jr.) for information, and keep going.

Meanwhile, we see snippets of Gabriel’s seemingly idyllic life before the war, marriage to spunky, strong Natalie (Kate Mara) and tranquil father/son bonding with Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell). Plus the easy camaraderie with Devin, how they grew up practically as brothers.

But there are also scenes of Gabriel being interviewed by a Captain Payton (Gary Oldman), who keeps pressing him to talk about “the incident.” What at first seems to be a military debriefing becomes something like a counseling session, and we wonder how this question-and-answer duel fits in with his life before and after the apocalypse.

LaBeouf has grown thicker and grimmer after his early spate of roles as the fresh young thing, and he wears it well. He chews his dialogue, playing Gabriel as a guy who’s not terribly bright but earnest and true. When he tells the captain he feels “betrayed” by what went down in that sandy village, it exposes all sorts of emotional roots sunk deep.

LaBeouf has gotten a lot more attention for his publicity stunts/performance art/whatever you want to call it the last few years. But here is an actor with talent and dedication, searching for the right role. This one isn’t it, but in his screen presence we sense that yearning.

I can’t say more about “Man Down” without dissecting it into death. There are some surprises that aren’t terribly surprising if you’ve been paying attention, as well as some things we expected that don’t come to pass. It’s a well-meaning film but not an especially well executed one.

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