Shia LaBeouf Explores His Own Childhood Trauma in ‘Man Down’

The actor delivers his most emotionally raw, difficult performance to date as a PTSD-suffering military veteran—channeling his own history with his troubled father.

Dito Montiel’s Man Down is a clunky vehicle for an achingly honest performance. The ballad-scored tragedy, with its disappointingly on the nose depiction of an ex-soldier’s psychological “battleground,” asks too much of its protagonist. And still, Shia LaBeouf manages to transcend his script and his director, delivering a turn that’s as pared down as the film is overdone.

Man Down suffers from a jumble of timelines and subplots, which unravel too slowly, only to explode at an alarming rate. As we follow LaBeouf’s Gabe through training camp and to Afghanistan, we are simultaneously thrown into a dystopian landscape of bombed-out brick facades and unkempt facial hair. Through a series of clues, we’re led to believe that this is Gabe’s final destination, having returned from war only to find his country decimated by an unnamed act of foreign aggression. Gabe is searching for his son, Jonathan, and it’s this hero’s mission that’s meant to pull us through the film. As a father, Gabe throbs with emotion. For all her wistful glances, Gabe’s wife Natalie (Kate Mara) is no match for his attention. Man Down opens on a man estranged from his son, and ends just as you’d expect it would. But the emotional arc in between is muddled by a series of twists and turns, which—for better or for worse—successfully differentiate Man Down from your typical war movie.

Gabe’s display of paternal valor is ultimately revealed to be a fraud. Throughout the film, we flash to Gabe in a tense disciplinary meeting, the stakes of which we can’t really discern. About halfway through the movie, this scene justifies itself in the revelation of Gabe’s true trauma: We learn that, while on duty in Afghanistan, he shot and killed a mother and child, and also watched his best friend die. Since that wasn’t enough of an emotional gut punch, he also learned that his aforementioned best battle buddy had had an affair with his wife. In another film, Gabe’s pained battlefield recollection would be the climax. But in Man Down, Gabe’s psychological distress builds to a violent explosion. The twist is that the fantastical dystopian landscape is just a figment of Gabe’s war-torn imagination. In reality, he’s homeless, estranged from his wife and son, and taking increasingly desperate and dangerous actions in order to get close to them.

Through a series of narrative and emotional crescendos, LaBeouf is required to perform a ridiculous number of denouements. He somehow manages to carry this overambitious script, breaking over and over again with sincere emotion. He has the rarely expressive face that you can’t look away from, even under a military crew cut. Additionally, he knows just how to play this superficially simple character, convincingly evolving from hometown hero to neighborhood terror. In a gripping scene at the end of the film, Gabe holds a gun to his wife’s head as his son sobs. Here, LaBeouf was doubtlessly drawing from his own life—in past interviews, he’s described the time when his own father held a gun to his head during a Vietnam flashback. Like Gabe, Shia was raised by a man who occasionally terrorized him. It’s an experience that one doesn’t easily forget.

In Man Down, LaBeouf’s personal history gives his performance inimitable depth and intimacy. But LaBeouf’s current status as a star gone wrong, a bad boy beyond saving, can’t be separated from his trying childhood.

Growing up in Echo Park, Los Angeles, LaBeouf found himself on the receiving end of a complex family inheritance of creativity and poverty. In a GQ article, the troubled star described one of the LaBeoufs’ many hustles: As a toddler, his parents started the Snow Cone Family Circus, a business venture that involved dressing up as clowns and selling ice shavings to make ends meet. For LaBeouf, performing was both a legacy and a requirement. In an early interview, the Disney Channel success story explains, “I come from five generations of performers.” His mother was an ex-ballerina, and his father was a former circus clown turned drug addict. Clowning may not have stuck, but creative expression did. “I was acting when I came out of the womb,” LaBeouf insists. “I come from the kind of family that when I got home from school, my father would say: ‘Forget the homework; let’s watch a Steve McQueen movie.’”

Charming anecdotes like these are often drowned out by LaBeouf’s other, less savory childhood memories. While acknowledging the emotional and physical abuse that plagued his childhood, LaBeouf has consistently praised his father, who he describes as “tough as nails and a different breed of man.” According to Shia, “When you’re 10 years old and watch your father going through heroin withdrawals, you grow up real fast. You become the parent in the relationship. But I must give him credit because he always told me that he didn’t want me to be like him.” At 20 years old, Shia cemented this role reversal by allowing his father to live in his garage.

Jeffrey LaBeouf gave his 10-year-old son marijuana, and introduced him to cigarettes early. But Shia testifies that that “one bad habit” is the only lasting consequence from his unconventional childhood: “My childhood never hindered me, and it never crippled me. They were pretty weird people, but they loved me and I loved them.”

If nothing else, Man Down shines a light on the psychological scars that LaBeouf has historically shied away from exploring. LaBeouf’s attempt to exorcise his demons through acting is successful, to a point. On one hand, it’s produced a remarkably raw performance. On the other, LaBeouf’s desire to push on the most sensitive wounds of his own psyche has driven him to new depths of mental instability. LaBeouf described Man Down as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever worked on, emotionally,” and said that he occasionally felt “suicidal” on set. The emotional pyrotechnics of the film differentiate it past other LaBeouf offerings, like the over-the-top Transformers series. This is a different breed of action movie, one that dabbles in both fast-pace sequences and careful character study. LaBeouf is explosive as a PTSD-afflicted hero navigating a dystopian nightmare. In the actor’s own words, his character Gabriel is “my Dad, and also the Dad I always wanted. He’s both. He’s the dream Dad that I always wanted, and also at times the other guy, too.”

Shia LaBeouf’s career has arguably been shaped by these two fathers—one painfully real, the other painfully fantastical. He’s consistently drawn to successful, powerful Hollywood patriarchs—the Spielbergs and Michael Bays of the celebrity stratosphere. While LaBeouf’s relationship with Megan Fox on the set of Transformers graced headlines, LaBeouf has spoken far more reverently about the man behind the camera. In a 2011 GQ interview, LaBeouf described his relationship to Michael Bay in terms that are almost too hyperbolic to be true, musing, “He’s my coach; I love him; he’s my captain. When we’re on set, he’s my ace. He’s my best friend, but he’s also my worst enemy.” More tellingly, he describes the adoration of his younger self, recalling, “When I met Mike, I was a seventeen-year-old boy. He was my fucking god.”

In Bay, LaBeouf found a role model and a father figure. Unlike the famous director, his biological father routinely acted as an impediment to his son’s burgeoning career. Jeffrey LaBeouf was accused of sexual harassment by an unnamed actress on the set of Even Stevens, Shia’s breakout show. In another concerning incident, he attacked a gay Disney executive for the perceived sleight of giving Shia a hug. Shia himself confirmed the assault, recounting, “He goes, ‘Are you trying to talk to my boy, you chicken hawk?’ You can’t do that to the executives.”

But Jeffrey’s crimes predate Shia’s acting career. In 1981, Jeffrey LaBeouf was charged with assault with intent to rape a minor. He was also charged with kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. A convicted sex offender, LaBeouf has been in violation of his registration requirements since 2014. As The Daily Mail reported, he fled the state of California and escaped to Costa Rica, where he lives in relative anonymity. Having been on the run from law enforcement for three years, LaBeouf was unable to attend Shia’s 2016 wedding to Mia Goth.

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Man Down’s twists and turns distract from a simple, powerful story. And for all the ups and downs of Shia LaBeouf’s rocky career, this raw performance brings him back to where he began. It’s the story of a traumatized father, and the trauma he imparts to his son. But for LaBeouf, the real twist is taking on the paternal role. As a father who eerily resembles his own dad, LaBeouf intimately portrays the PTSD that colored his childhood. Naturally, he feels it deeply. As LaBeouf said, “All the stuff with Charlie [his onscreen son] was really hard for both of us, and I love that kid like my son, full-blown. All the love in this movie is real, so that’s not a magic trick or anything, it’s the real deal. It’s really hard to crush the people that you love, for whatever end. That stuff was really hard because you love them but you have to break them, which sucks.”

In playing a character that is both a dream dad and a tortured father, LaBeouf seems to be acknowledging that the good dad/bad dad binary is just a fantasy. After decades spent chasing mentors and struggling with his own demons, LaBeouf has returned to his father, and redeemed him.