- The Peanut Butter Falcon
- Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
- Starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zack Gottsagen
- Classification PG
- 93 minutes
Sometimes, knowing the subtext enhances the text.
We are in a nowhere gas station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A tortured crabber is drinking moonshine out of a jug while haggling with the proprietor over supplies. They are for himself and a young man with Down syndrome hiding in the reeds in his underwear.
A beautiful woman walks in looking for the man in his underwear. The fisherman parries and the woman expertly defends. You notice the emptiness of the shelves and their lives. He wonders whether the missing man wants to be caught. He says the man might be out "living the American dream, like a Mark Twain story.” She smiles and gives him the finger as she exits. The manchild in his underwear does not reveal himself.
This moment from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon is the most endearing scene I’ve seen in years.
The fact that the crabber is Shia LaBeouf, a talented but magnificently troubled actor who was arrested for public intoxication during the film’s shoot, and the woman is Dakota Johnson, she of the trillion-grossing, tragicomedy 50 Shades of Grey trilogy and a not-normal childhood growing up the scion of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, just adds more pixels to the moment. (There are two things I would do if I won the lottery: Buy the BC Lions and fund a romantic comedy starring LaBeouf and Johnson.)
And the man in the reeds? His name is Zack Gottsagen. In the film, he plays a challenged man without a home who wants to become a pro wrestler. In real life, all Gottsagen wanted to do was be in a movie.
Knowing all of this just makes The Peanut Butter Falcon an even more remarkable achievement. As LeBeouf’s line acknowledges, it is a modern take on Twain’s depiction of Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi, on the lam from their past and other preconceptions.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a learning-disabled twentysomething forced to live with the elderly in a nursing home because no one else wants him. He obsessively watches an old VCR tape of a wrestler called the Salt Walter Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and dreams of attending Redneck’s wrestling school 50 or so miles away. (He eventually adopts the Peanut Butter Falcon as his ring name.)
He escapes with the help of his irascible roomie (Bruce Dern) and scoots into the North Carolina night in nothing but his tighty-whities, much to the despair of his caretaker Eleanor (Johnson). He soon encounters Tyler (LaBeouf) a troubled young man dealing with the loss of his brother and his livelihood. The pain of a promising life derailed is etched on LaBeouf’s face, and it is hard not to wonder whether he is acting or living out the agony of where his life was in 2017 when the film was made. (He entered rehab after filming.)
Gottsagen’s Zak is an effervescent take on a hacky cliché, the magical stranger who drops into the lives of others and makes them realize that life is precious. But it works here because Zak is never played for pathos and, in fact, is given some of the film’s wisest lines. (This strains credulity in the other direction, as Zak delivers more zingers than a Stephen Colbert monologue, but whatever.)
At first, you may cringe at Gottsagen letting it all hang out, from his gut to his back hair, but quickly it is understood that this isn’t exploitative but accentuates his humanity. His performance is understated, the kind that if given by Christian Bale or Meryl Streep would be lauded for bringing out the best in fellow actors. The cast benefits from Nilson and Schwartz carving their film in the sweat of the languid South. You hear the insects and taste the rain.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is essentially a buddy road film with Gottsagen and LaBeouf literally floating down the river, half in escape, half in pursuit of a better life. Some of their journeys along the way work better (Gottsagen catching a fish with his bare hands) than others (a painfully long encounter with a blind preacher), but the connection between Gottsagen and LaBeouf is as organic as anything you’re likely to see in a film this year. Along the way, Johnson tracks them, catches them and then tries to understand Zak through Tyler’s too-tired-for-his-years eyes.
At times, the film leans too much on its fable components, particularly in the fantastical and fantastically corny conclusion. But you’re likely to forgive it all because Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson deliver intensely realistic performances of three humans looking for healing and connection after life has delivered them cards that look less like a hand and more like a foot. In the end, whether the performances are driven by real-life trauma or by acting doesn’t matter. Life might be imitating art or vice versa, who knows? One thing is certain: The Peanut Butter Falcon is a wonderful piece of art.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens Aug. 23.