Part domestic drama, part war film, part dystopian sci-fi. Man Down does okay at all three in an amateurish way but never comes close to tying it all together.
Author Dito Montiel seemed to have a very promising career ahead of him after the rugged charm of his first feature, an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints in 2006. Sadly he almost instantly devolved into a typical auteur mess over the course of his next two films, ending up as a director for hire on a Dwayne Johnson, straight-to-DVD calibre, thriller in 2013. He found a little bit of a second wind though with his 2014 drama Boulevard, which was blessed with one of the final few performances of the late Robin Williams; and quite a good one at that. Man Down is still very rough work though. Montiel’s main problem is that he appears to have given up on learning more about filmmaking as a discipline quite early in his career, or at the very least his progression as a director has been grindingly slow. Man Down may not be where you’d have hoped he’d be by this point in his career but it does showcase some new tricks from him and drags out some of the great, genuine, performances that his first film was known for.
That might be Montiel’s most winsome quality. Honesty. It may not be the smartest thing you’ve ever seen but there’s a certain realness to his drama that’s informed by experience rather than observation. It doesn’t work with the melodramatic plot twists that Man Down continually throws at you, slowly and from a mile away, but it does make for some genuine moments from the core cast. Little details in the domestic drama, ways in which characters interact with one another. This doesn’t do much to make the story any less obvious, or professional looking, but of Man Down’s many sins at least “wasting good acting talent” isn’t one of them. Shia LaBeouf, suffering from a prolonged exposure to the Los Angeles fame machine, has been posturing over his move back to “serious acting” for some time now and his performance in Man Down demonstrates that his talent has continued to grow from a very strong , natural, base. Perhaps for the first time ever he truly appears to be an adult on screen, not a child or an adolescent. Kate Mara and Gary Oldman, similarly, appear to be playing actual characters rather than just reading lines from a script. Man Down is a low-budget indie whose reach exceeds its grasp but there’s clearly an adept talent handling the actors.
You wish that there was more intimacy and intricacy being shown elsewhere. Man Down tackles a serious subject in a fairly banal way which some may interpret as disrespectfully sensationalist. Without going into details, the film does hinge itself, rather stupidly, on a very predictable plot twist. Thankfully the engine driving each scene forward is the performances, and the jumbled course of events may unnecessarily muddy the story but they do allow LaBeouf to give his all in a series of very different scenes and states of mental wellbeing. Man Down makes up for what it lacks in technical dexterity and actual intelligence with a certain amount of emotional intelligence. Like most of Montiel’s work as a director, Man Down still has a critical lack of focus; not just in terms of story structure but of message. Ultimately it wants you to feel for its protagonist, which LaBeouf is able to make you do, but if you go in searching for, or expecting, plot then you will very easily get lost in the clutter of this genre mash-up which utilises none of the best aspects of any of its genres.
Man Down is out now in select UK cinemas.