Man Down is a tough film to sell, and an even tougher one to conceptualize. The PTSD war drama shares common elements with some recent war films, such as American Sniper and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but the film’s unique take on how war effects an individual is bold and inventive, yet naturally decisive. Taking aside the film’s not so subtle elements, it’s a powerful experience of a story spearheaded by a tour de force performance by Shia Labeouf.
Gabriel Drummer (Shia Labeouf) is a family man, set to be dispatched for war in Afghanistan alongside his best friend Devin Roberts (Jai Coutney). After traumatic events, Drummer interviews with a Captain (Gary Oldman) who attempts to help Drummer deal with the affects of war. As Drummer breaks down the events that led him to this point, strange and mysterious events occur around him, putting him and his family to the test.
The movie isn’t told in linear fashion, and while this may strike some as gimmicky or disorienting, the film utilizes this method to subvert storytelling cliches and make the storyline more interesting by creating questions that provoke questions. There is a certain element of the film that is tough to discuss without getting into spoilers, and it certainly is one that is bound to be decisive. It’s a bold twist, and paints the character’s struggle in a new light that is more affecting that what we usually see in this sort of film.
If the creative storytelling isn’t enough, there’s a unique style to the film, including multiple dreamlike sequences. This isn’t a film that tells the audience large chunks of exposition, instead allowing and trusting the audience to figure things out for themselves. It’s clever, but the film only works if its central performance is rock solid, and thankfully that is the case with Shia Labeouf.
To say that Shia Labeouf is brilliant in this film is certainly an understatement, and almost unnecessary. Labeouf has continuously proven to be one of the best, most committed, and most versatile actors working, and his work here is no different; Labeouf captures the integrity of a father, ethic of a solider, and will of a man in a subdued, yet explosive performance that taps into its maximum dramatic effect whilst never reaching beyond what’s believable in the story. There are elements of a young Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro in his work here, a rawness and authenticity that ranks among the best performances of the year.
Man Down is a wholly original film that not only plays an intriguing game of discovering its true intent, but also delivers a grim look at the realities of war. It succeeds at both in spades, and whilst there are some distracting stylistic choices, the end of the film is so expertly clever that its only undermined by how powerful the emotional weight of its events are. It’s a bold, fresh, and highly watchable thriller with a performance by Labeouf that may go down as an all-timer. Grade: B+