‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’: Shia LeBeouf and Zack Gottsagen Are One of This Year’s Most Endearing Screen Teams
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” tells one of those delightfully old-fashioned stories where friendships are formed on the run. It’s about outcasts and dreamers, told with a simplicity that proves you don’t need a massive budget to say something meaningful. It is precisely when a good director needs to work with a small budget that characters can come into great focus, and the characters are the best element in this movie. They feel like the kind of regular people who inadvertently become legendary.
Somewhere in rural Virginia two men from completely different worlds find themselves needing to escape. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has Down syndrome and lives in a nursing home, but he obsessively watches a wrestling videotape promoting a training school he yearns to go see. His caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) deeply cares for him but tries to dissuade his impulses. One night he sneaks out a window in nothing but his underwear and off he goes. Near the coast a tidewater fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) gets into a confrontation with a ruthless crab trapper, Duncan (John Hawkes) and burns some of his gear. Now being chased by Duncan, Tyler goes underground and starts wandering the nearby lakes and swamps to hide. Eventually he bumps into Zak, who describes his plans to find the school run by pro wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Tyler agrees to make the long trek with him. The two form a unique bond traversing woods and rivers, meeting other unique characters and having close calls with speeding ships and the relentless Duncan.
The story behind the making of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” has almost overshadowed the film itself. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Zak Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors and immediately took up the challenge of proving a movie could star an actor with Down syndrome. They fashioned the script around Gottsagen and defied skepticism from investors. Soon major names like LeBeouf, Johnson and Church were attracted to the script. Even Bruce Dern, who keeps appearing as a cranky old side character in numerous films like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” delivers a wily performance as Carl, Zak’s roommate at the nursing home. Shia LeBeof made brief headlines during the film’s shoot when he was arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, which is almost fitting for a movie about rebels on the run.
What this team has crafted is a highly enjoyable, deep buddy movie about the importance of true friendship, respect and that age-old advice of accepting yourself. Tyler and Zak feel like characters out of a Mark Twain story, floating down a southern river, plopping down on the shorelines while discussing the complexities of life. There’s a special, endearing tone to the way Tyler isn’t just being nice to Zak, he truly encourages his fellow fugitive to pursue his wrestling school goals. They sit around a campfire, go fishing or carve watermelon helmets and it’s all a portrait of when misfits find each other. Nilson and Schwartz’s screenplay has passages of simple but penetrating honesty, like Zak claiming he could never be a hero because he has Down syndrome and Tyler, being the more experienced world wanderer, sternly insisting that’s rubbish. If there is a lack of major action sequences we don’t care, it’s a pleasure to just see these two ponder their places in life under the stars.
For both LeBeof and Gottsagen this film is a great revelation. Gottsagen creates a character instantly likeable and heroic. He has the stubborn drive of a person determined to achieve a goal. LeBeof has a more subdued, experienced air, like a guy who’s had to fend for himself all his life. The wisdom or tips he gives Zak aren’t condescending, but from a person who lives among rats and saints. Flashbacks during the river journey show how Tyler has never recovered from the death of his brother in an accident where he is not without guilt. When Tyler and Zak bump into Eleanor Tyler is instantly smitten, even if he’s a pirate to her proper nursing home worker. LeBeof and Johnson have chemistry on screen of the sort you get from two opposites attracting. He talks to her with that tone of the misfit daring a more reserved person to try being a little more bold.
Visually “The Peanut Butter Falcon” follows the tradition of classic American cinema set in the wilds of the south. Like “Mud” or “Undertow,” the swamps and humid fields are shot by cinematographer Nigel Buck of HBO’s “True Detective” with a gritty sharpness. Other moments take on a dreamier even fairy tale quality, like when the two friends play in the rain or later when Zak finally gets his chance to step into the ring.
Just what is the “Peanut Butter Falcon?” It is Zak’s wrestling alter ego, invented during one of those luminous campfire chats as the two evade both Duncan and a worried Eleanor. One shouldn’t spoil what happens once they get near the wrestling school, but it’s a tactfully written, even darkly comic take on how our dreams aren’t always based on reality. What you see in an old VHS tape may not always be the truth. Wrestling stars grow old too.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” invites the audience to enjoy a story for the quality of its characters. There is suspense in the way we hope Zak reaches his goals and Tyler escapes the roaming thugs led by Duncan, but it’s the journey itself that counts. Its magic works from suspecting that deep down, all of us sometimes feel like running away.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” opens Aug. 9 in select theaters.