When secrets are withheld in movies, they are usually in the service of a big, overarching mystery. Keeping a secret in a normal, straightforward drama or comedy is sometimes done, but the reveals tend not to be earth shattering, lest they upset the balance of what the story has already laid out.
There is no way to talk about Man Down without acknowledging that it contains one huge reveal. However, the fact that the filmmakers decided the movie needed such a secret in the first place is indicative of what a poor story they had, not to mention an undercutting of the important message they’re trying to tell.
As initially laid out, the story of Man Down is told in three intermingled parts. In the first, Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) is a U.S. Marine, with a wife (Kate Mara) and young son, who’s sent to war in Afghanistan. In the second, a military counselor (Gary Oldman) debriefs Drummer about an unknown incident. And in the third, Drummer and his best friend, fellow soldier Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), are surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, although how the world reached that state is unclear.
Writer/director Dito Montiel, working from a story by co-writer Adam G. Simon, jumps back and forth between the three parts at will, with varying results. The scenes of Drummer at home with his family or fighting in the war are the most effective, as they allow each character to be fleshed out to a degree. The other two parts, however, are cryptic to the point of unintelligibility, making them more frustrating than interesting.
The reason they are so mysterious is because they’re hiding the big reveal, a storytelling technique that backfires when the secret is finally told. That secret turns out to be so serious that treating it as a prop for a pseudo-thriller should be insulting to anybody watching the movie, no matter what background you come from.
LaBeouf keeps getting chances as a leading man, even though it seems increasingly clear that he’s not up to the challenge. The normal parts of the movie fit his skill-set well, but when he’s required to act off-kilter, it’s the second coming of Nicolas Cage. Of the supporting actors, Mara makes the best impression, mostly because she seems down-to-earth next to LaBeouf.
Man Down wants to have its cake and eat it too, offering up dramatic subtext in the guise of a thriller/war movie. If the film had just aimed straight for the gut instead of trying to trick audiences, it would have been much more successful.