Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Man Down (2015) directed by Dito Monteil (Venice Film Festival 2015)

Killers stroll down our streets. Men and women who spend sleepless nights mentally reliving the charnel houses of Afghanistan and Iraq, their fingers twitching with the muscle memory of squeezing that cold metal trigger. Who knows what atrocities they witnessed or perpetrated? Many sink into suicidical ideation; finding the lines between warzone and home blurred beyond recognition.

Man Down explores these ghosts of war, following Gabriel Drummer's (Shia LaBeouf) progression from starry eyed new recruit to dead-eyed, delusional maniac.

Director Dito Monteil takes a chronologically tangled route to get there, leaping between Gabriel's Full Metal Jacket style training, his pre-deployment home life with concerned yet strong wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and outrageously mopheaded son Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell), his deployment in Afghanistan, a post-battle psychological evaluation and a Mad Max style post apocalyptic quest to save his son from child slavery in the chemically scarred ruins of contemporary America.

Say what now? It's in that last setting that Man Down shifts gears into high concept cinema, presenting us with surreal chunks of action that appear airdropped in from a completely different movie.

Monteil is going somewhere with all this, and, to his credit, watching all that congeal into a coherent narrative is at least interesting. That's perhaps the nicest thing to say about it, as damn near everything else about Man Down is a load of hamhanded, hackneyed rubbish.

Most problems stem from a script that attempts to place us in the protagonist's shattered mind to directly experience his trauma, psychosis and dissociation. It comprehensively fails to do this: the film's depiction of mental illness would be offensive if it wasn't so patently ridiculous. Matters aren't helped by a cast of paper-thin supporting characters whose lives are spent gazing with vague concern at Shia LaBeouf.

LaBeouf, at least, comes out of this relatively unscathed. Gabriel Drummer is the kind of role he's been excelling at lately: a tightly wound, introverted (and bushily bearded) bundle of neuroses whose calm exterior cracks and eventually shatters. There are moments where he, through sheer force of will alone, makes the film watchable. This is most evident in an extended scene between him and a psychiatrist (played by Gary Oldman), where the restrained drama of a mentally wounded man being gently pushed out of his comfort zone works well.

But for the most part, he and everyone else in the film is lost in a swamp of directorial cliches, cheap looking sets and eye-rollingly dumb dialogue. It's hard to suppress the gag reaction when you watch slow motion scenes of soldiers training at sunset scored by dirge-y soft rock, or the embarrassingly broad way Monteil cuts between a dead family in Afghanistan and the hero's smilingly perfect one back home. Annoyingly, the film also displays zero regard for the audience's memory, constantly flashing back to important dialogue in prior scenes to absolutely ensure we connect the dots. Dammit man, the film's only 90 minutes long, we're not goldfish!

The cherry on the top of this unappetising cake is a clapped out visual style that's all desaturated colours, iffy digital compositing and largely pointless shaky-cam. This militaristic aesthetic was new and exciting in Black Hawk Down, but the 14 subsequent years of recruitment adverts and direct-to-DVD oo-rah clangers have drained all impact from it.

For all that I can't find it in myself to hate Man Down, which, for all its stumbles is a pleasantly loopy piece of cinema. Granted, it's an aesthetic failure with a strained narrative and deeply garbled message, but it's trying to do something interesting - at least it's not boring.


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