Look, Shia LaBeouf was approximately the 27th worst thing in that last Indiana Jones movie, and his intense-yet-distracted turns in the Transformers series aren't legit strikes against him. Would you have turned down all that money to be posed by Michael Bay for a couple months every few years? Now, in the ripely bizarre Man Down, Dito Montiel's green-screened puzzle-mess of PTSD counseling and post-apocalyptic cityscapes, LaBeouf is far and away the best thing in a film — and that would probably be true even if the film weren't a confused and ugly howler.
Beefed up but still tremblingly emotive, LaBeouf stars as a stoic Marine being calmly questioned by some muckety-muck played by Gary Oldman. At issue is what Oldman's character calls “the incident,” a disastrous encounter in an Afghan city, but LaBeouf’s grunt is eager to speak of anything but. So we get flashbacks to his Marine training, which are Montiel's most convincing scenes, the camera gliding past columns of men working through drills and getting called “motherfucker” by their drill sergeant. Especially interesting is a sequence in which LaBeouf’s character — Gabriel — is tear-gassed and then told to open his eyes and keep going. Scenes of Gabriel and his family also involve him taking toxins through his eye-holes: He watches The O'Reilly Factor and hears paranoid blather about imminent chemical warfare.
That connects his past to the film's third timeline. Sometime after the interview about the incident, Gabriel and a squadmate wander the hokey CGI remains of Camp LeJeune, the last survivors of some world-destroying incident. At least, they think they are — but that wouldn't be all that interesting. Weirder still than the desperate man of questionable allegiance who they do encounter is the fact that Gabriel spies someone apparently living in the home he left his wife and kids in when he shipped out for Afghanistan.
Other flashbacks flesh out his family life, and LaBeouf is especially strong in scenes with Charlie Shotwell, who plays his young son. His hard edge softens, and you'll catch that smile that first started winning him roles way back when in the first place, but Gabriel is always wearing manliness as a kind of shield. The boy says that he's being bullied at school because the other kids heard his mother say “I love you” to him. Gabriel, with offhand gravity, proposes that father and son never use those words in public — instead they'll say “Man down.”
Montiel lets these moments breathe, lets us study the competing emotions at play beneath LaBeouf’s face, and the scene could work as a tearjerking crowd-pleaser in one of those grim Lone Survivor/American Sniper dramas we get every year. But Man Down hints that there's something sick about this — that men should be able to bond over something other than the death of soldiers.
But LaBeouf makes something moving out of Gabriel's principled stolidity. When he finally describes the incident, his voice goes small, and he wipes his eyes, but he keeps his gaze fixed: “I thought the area was clear,” he says, the words seeming to fall from his mouth.
Too bad the movie has a world to destroy and an unconscionably cruel twist to get to, one that makes the most ridiculous of melodrama out of soldiers' trauma. It's so bonkers I almost recommend the movie, just so you can gape and yell when it hits. (A hint: Imagine the worst possible justification for the post-apocalyptic scenes.) Man Down is a slap in the face, and most shots are so cheaply worked over by the computer team that it looks like its own bootleg. Still, it may work as LaBeouf’s audition reel for the next Peter Berg movie. Dude ain't bad, haters.