The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The Peanut Butter Falcon is an absolute surprise of the 2019 summer movie season.
Shia LaBeouf delivers, in my view, the best performance of his career.
Representation matters and the optics and performance given by Zack Gottsagen, in his feature-film debut, is significant and important.
A modernized telling of “Huck Finn,” may feel derivative to some viewers, no matter the adaptations and changes made by the filmmakers.
Some may find this relies on stereotypes a bit too much for their liking, especially in how it depicts those from the deep South.
Quite honestly, the movie will be telegraphed a bit too much and predictable for those hoping the movie takes this story a few different places.
Shia LaBeouf has admitted that during the filming of The Peanut Butter Falcon, he hit rock bottom. Mired in escalating issues with alcohol, his 2017 drunken tirade against police officers, arresting him for public intoxication during the shooting of this film, tarnished his image to lower and lower depths.
Countless times, in the history of Hollywood and the movies, actors struggling with addiction or personal problems have given career-best performances. Richard Burton was notoriously drunk in most everything he did on screen. Peter O’Toole often claimed he never remembered shooting much of Lawrence of Arabia because he was drinking so heavily. Fred Astaire. Spencer Tracy. The list goes on and on.
Somewhere in the despair of those struggles, LaBeouf found humanity, kindness and warmth, taking pain and misery and harnessing that into what may be his finest performance to date. This modern take on Mark Twain and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Gottsagen makes his feature-film debut as “Zak,” in this road-trip story of a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome hoping to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler like his hero. a grappler known as Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
Gottsagen shines here, as the writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz place infinite trust in their leading man to guide us through a journey which eventually leads to his crossing paths with LaBeouf’s Tyler.
Tyler is a fisherman lost, with no real direction or purpose. When we meet him, he is raiding a small crabbing company’s crab pots, invalidating about a $10,000 haul of product. Concurrently, Zak is living in a nursing home, rooming with the elderly and eccentric Carl (Bruce Dern). Desperately wanting to run away, he watches the same videotape over and over again of matches featuring his favorite wrestler. On the tape, Salt Water Redneck promotes a wrestling school where he trains aspiring grapplers. Zak’s dream is to go to the school, learn moves like “The Atomic Throw,” and became a super-strong hero in the wrestling business.
His efforts to run away label him a flight risk, and his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is frustrated at her inability to convince him to stay. When new security bars are installed after one failed escape, Zak and Carl bend the bars later that night and Zak is free, clad only in his underwear, running as fast as his legs will take him. The next day, Carl claims Zak used his strength to break out, Eleanor is tasked with bringing him back, and the crabbers (John Hawkes, rapper Yelawolf) are angry, willing to shoot to kill if they find Tyler and get their retribution.
Nilson and Schwartz may have crafted a predictable film, but it is no less enjoyable and intriguing to watch. The manner with which Gottsagen seems to grow in confidence in scene after scene is fun to experience. When he crosses paths with LaBeouf, the two generate instant chemistry together.
Essentially this becomes a road-trip movie - Tyler is headed to Florida to begin a new life and agrees to drop Zak off at Salt Water Redneck’s school in North Carolina. The road trip however is transposed onto makeshift boats and beaches, as opposed to highways and rest stops. The cinematography from Nigel Bluck (“True Detective”) captures these characters in ways both larger than life and smaller than the world around them, silhouetting them against the expansive backdrop of their surroundings. Minor characters flit in and out, flirting with caricature. I did appreciate the moments shared with a shopkeeper (Bruce Henderson), whose quizzical observations of Tyler and Zak, lead us into the moment where Eleanor catches up with the wayward traveling pair.
Once the duo becomes a trio, The Peanut Butter Falcon turns into a story of running away from more than what’s obvious. Tyler is haunted by memories involving his brother (Jon Bernthal), Zak is trying to prove to the world he is no different than anyone else, and Eleanor is seeking meaning in her life. All want desperately to find something new and together, they somehow hope to find elusive happiness and peace.
Cameos from legendary wrestlers Jake Roberts and Mick Foley usher into a makeshift, outdoor wrestling arena, which becomes the destination where all these stories come together as one. However, before the inevitable conclusions are reached, LaBeouf has tapped into one of the more emotional and powerful characters ever played in his most fascinating career.
The actor, no matter what may have been happening off screen, dissolves into Tyler’s persona. He studies Zak deeply. His presence is genuine, his connections honest and true, and his ability to tell us so much about Tyler’s pain and desperation, with just a smile or a glance, rivals the best work of his more lauded peers.
The Peanut Butter Falcon, named after Zak’s wrestling alter ego, is a heartwarming movie that soars in so many ways. We know where it’s going pretty much every step of the way, but Gottsagen’s breakout performance, and Shia LaBeouf’s award-worthy work makes this journey one you won’t mind taking time and time again.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Bruce Henderson.
Director: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Written by: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Release Date: August 9, 2019