The world is a vast and wonderful place, filled with inexplicable and peculiar things, and one of them is the career of musician-turned-model-turned-author-turned-director Dito Montiel. Perhaps with a backstory as colorful as his it’s inevitable that the first Dito Montiel film, “A Guide To Recognising Your Saints,” which was adapted by Dito Montiel from a book by Dito Montiel based on the life of 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer — naw, just kidding, based on the life of Dito Montiel — was going to be his best. But it doesn’t really account for the odd shape of his career thereafter. After an inspired start, he’s been working regularly, often with solid casts. Yet most of his films are the type that you stumble across late some night on cable and wonder a) how can I never have heard of this if it has all these people in it, and b) why is it not very good? But hey, if you’re reading this, at least in a couple of years when you’re watching TV and something not very good with Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Jai Courtney, Clifton Collins, and Kate Mara comes on, you’ll know that it’s Montiel’s “Man Down.”
It starts out less not-good than it ends up, to be fair, and for the majority of its running time, it’s engaging enough. Its chief issue in these parts seems to be that the director isn’t super sure if he’s making an action thriller with apocalyptic overtones, a family drama, or a character portrait/performance showcase, so the tone is all over the place. Of course, never-knowingly-humble lead Shia LaBeouf certainly seems to interpret it as the latter and so does a lot of Acting, milking the film’s mish-mash of genres and timelines so that, despite the fact he only plays one person, it feels like he’s got a variety of roles, with a different configuration of hat/hair/beard for each one. Still, unevenness isn’t the worst thing you can say about a film, and one can hardly fault LaBeouf for overcommitting to his character’s various phases, so if Montiel had not mistaken tricksiness for originality and managed the dismount better, there’s no reason it couldn’t have been a decent little B-movie, the kind of thing that Ethan Hawke seems to do all the time now. But no, whatever small store of credit it has in the bank it squanders in a finale so overblown, heavyhanded, and eye-rollingly repetitive that it was all but drowned out by the sound of people tapping their watch faces to make sure they weren’t broken. It’s only 92 minutes long, but it feels so much longer.
Gabriel (LaBeouf) is a Marine, married to Natalie (Mara), father to cute blond John (a very good juvenile performance from Charlie Shotwell). His best friend Devin (Courtney) has been like a brother to him since childhood, is a fellow Marine on active service, and in fact was the one who encouraged Gabriel to join up in the first place. (In one of the many flashbacks we get to watch Devin and Gabriel go through training, which serves no earthly narrative purpose but gives Montiel, ever fascinated by lean men in violent or physical situations, the opportunity to bring a few training sequence cliches to life: the squadron commander bawling them out; the ritual humiliation of the first day; lots of “Sir! Yes Sir!”ing.) But we know from the prologue that this world of Gabriel’s is going to end: we’ve already seen him and Devin hunting for his lost son in a ruined, crumbled America, apparently the result of some sort of near-extinction-level terrorist event. And a further strand shows Gabriel being questioned by a superior, played by Gary Oldman in a role that never even requires him to stand up from behind his desk — a gradually thawing relationship that prompts further flashback sequences to both Gabriel’s life at home before he shipped out and to the so-dubbed “incident” that occurred while he was on tour in Afghanistan with Devin.
Each of the separate strands has its moments, and individually perhaps any one of them could have made a better film than this hodgepodge ends up being. But Montiel layers needless complications on top of necessary complexities, and while we could be watching an interesting investigation of PTSD, or the touching story of a man trying to reunite with a beloved son, or a war-is-hell movie, or a tale of brotherhood united and divided, instead we’re watching all those things simultaneously, and yet completely separately. None of the strands ever really refers to another until the very end, which makes the experience disjointed at best and downright irritating at worst. Especially since the only reason for the manner in which it all unfolds is to allow Montiel a series of rug-pulls and gotchas, some of which are ridiculously predictable, and some of which are pretty surprising, but only in the way that you can’t really believe they went there. And then comes that ending.
Perhaps aware that there’s too little connective tissue between the various states that Gabriel is in in each of the different time periods, even Montiel seems to lose faith in his approach by the film’s close. So, as though he’s worried that we won’t quite grasp the ridiculous, not-at-all subtle final plot point, nor understand the extraordinary emotional resonance it has for Gabriel, he ill-advisedly cuts from current action back to scenes we’ve already seen, over and over and over again. It’s the equivalent of someone nudging you in the ribs repeatedly after a punchline and saying “Geddit? Geddit? Did you get it?” only here the joke is grimly self-serious and not a little depressing. Perhaps there would have been a way to tell this story, which in itself is not the worst, in a manner that would have earned the emotional resonance that Montiel instead slathers on with a trowel in these final moments, but then where would the guys at HBO2 be, for programming to fill that all-important 4:45 AM slot some Wednesday in 2019? [C-/D+]