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.
Video and Audio:
Man Down is a complex visual outing, sporting the heavy textures of warzone and post-apocalyptic dilapidation within faintly desaturated, tan-and-gray leaning color choices. Lionsgate's Blu-ray rolls with the punches of its photography, captured in a 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer that can't dodge some digital limitations, like hefty grain, banding in backgrounds, and wishy-washy black levels. There's also a degree of haziness, especially during the counseling bit with Oldman's character, though some of that might play into stylistic choices of the cinematography. Detail strength is hit and miss, where pores, wrinkles or scars on faces, the roughness of stone walls, and the density of foliage and the weave of camo shade netting stays stable, while general skin textures and the muddiness of the apocalyptic setting get lost underneath digital flatness. Contrast skews both in overly light and fairly dark, detail-crushing directions, but the moments when it's well-balanced -- notably during close-ups and interior shots at the Drummer household -- really enhance the depth. Excluding the deliberately more vivid shots involved with picnics and other back-home sequences, some shades of color emerge from the desaturated appearance, especially reds and blues (of course); however, skin tones can take on a strangely pinkish-tan hue at times, especially during the apocalyptic scenes. The transfer fulfills its duties, but not without a few stumbles.
While atmospheric and sturdy at most points, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track also struggles with certain digital issues here and there, notably with level balance between the channels. Dialogue sticks to a thin column within the center channel of the surround design, and the louder presence of the music and environmental touches cause the clarity of speech to struggle with general audibility … though the thinness and lack of midrange bass presence to some of the delivery doesn't help matters. This isn't a universal thing, though, as other sequences boast fine dialogue audibility and depth. Louder, more action-driven sequences fare better with the demands placed upon them, especially during a vigorous firefight at the middle of the film: the higher-end pops of gunfire and lapping flames, the lower-frequency rumble of explosions, and midrange slam of bullets that crumble rock architecture are rich and nuanced as they sprawl across the surround stage. Like the transfer, the sound treatment has its impressive ups and a few frustrating downs, but ultimately comes away with a victory.
The sole extra available with Man Down, an Audio Commentary with Director Dito Montiel and Military Advisor Sergeant Nick Jones Jr. expands upon how they utilize corners of New Orleans for the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, the genuineness of the Marine boot camp, and what elements of the shoot were real and fabricated (such as a clip from Bill O'Reilly). I greatly appreciate how Montiel, as a frequent commentary listener, respects the audience for his own track, recognizing when he could get a little overly congratulatory of his actors and keeping his discussion focused on relatively objective, interesting insights about the process. Along with restrained participation from Jones Jr., they lightly discuss how they achieved certain degrees of realism with drills and other military mechanisms involved with the film. While I wish they would've gone deeper into their discussion about the big firefight, they do explore elements of PTSD while they're emphasized later on the film, though it's not really in lock-step with what's happening on-screen. An insightful, if overly light commentary.
Noble, highbrow intentions are active in Man Down, which blends post-apocalyptic imagery, military drama, and psychological tension within the story of Gabriel Drummer, a Marine and family man who copes with the after-effects of combat training and battle in a tattered post-war version of America. The action that transpires in this setting, however, is sparser than anticipated, but that's by the intentions and design that unfold in the story. Alas, the film's chunks of nonlinear narrative and overreaching attempts at downhearted tonality result in a meandering, severe, and generally tough-to-swallow piece of work, one that undercuts its timely insights about war veterans and post-trauma stress with overstated endeavors. Rent It.