"Man Down" carries a poignant message about American veterans' mental health needs, but you may give up on the movie before it gets there. Nothing is clear until the film's final moments, which hit with a gut punch just before the credits roll.
Until then, the story is told through disjointed flashbacks that make it hard to know what's going on and who to root for. Director Dito Montiel bounces between boot camp, active duty in Afghanistan and life in post-apocalyptic America, with star Shia LaBeouf's haircut and beard scruff the only real indicator of where we are in time.
LaBeouf's performance is powerful, maybe his best to date, but it's unduly burdened by an erratic story structure that doesn't engender empathy for his character.
He plays Gabe, a Marine who enlisted with his lifelong best friend, Devin (Jai Courtney). When we first see the two men, they're dirty and bearded, not in uniform, brandishing guns in a bombed-out city as they desperately look for Gabe's son. Gabe carries a worn picture in his pocket of his wife, Natalie (Kate Mara), and their towheaded little boy, Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell, heartbreaking in the final scenes).
Suddenly, uniformed, clean-shaven Gabe is in an office being questioned by a military counselor (Gary Oldman, disappointingly flat). The counselor is asking about "the incident," and Gabe is stoic.
Then it's basic training at Camp Lejeune, where Gabe and Devin are new recruits being toughened up by an unrelenting drill sergeant. Natalie sweetly shaves Gabe's head as he prepares to ship out to Afghanistan.
Now, Gabe and Devin are back from the war, bearded and dirty, wandering dystopian streets and threatening a homeless man as they look for Gabe's family.
Now, clean-shaven Gabe is driving his son to school as they playfully decide to use the military term "man down" as secret code for "I love you." He promises to send letters from Afghanistan.
Now, stoic Gabe drops a reluctant tear while talking to the military counselor.
The meandering structure creates a little too much mystery for the audience to know where to place its allegiances. Did the Marines have something to do with the disappearance of Gabe's son, so Gabe and Devin have gone rogue? Or did Gabe harm his son, and that's why he's being questioned by a military counselor? That distinction is key if we want to root for the good guy.
Screenwriter Adam G. Simon's nonlinear story parses out details in such a way that we don't know enough about Gabe's situation to experience his emotional arc until the very end, which feels like a lost opportunity given its heart-wrenching heft. Without that context, it's hard to fully appreciate LaBeouf's nuanced performance. We don't understand what we're looking at until it's over.
"Man Down" ultimately has a lot to say about the debilitating effects of war and the dismal reality for many veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. It just waits too long to say it.
"Man Down," a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some disturbing violence, and language throughout." Running time: 92 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .