The Peanut Butter Falcon Review
Shia LaBeouf’s career seemed to be heading down the toilet after his many personal transgressions and growing mockery of his move from blockbuster star into arthouse territory. But along the way he’s continued to serve reminders of his talent, with strong turns in the likes of American Honey and Honey Boy (which he also wrote) and now in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Even during the production of this film he was very publicly arrested and LaBeouf credits co-star Zack Gottsagen with helping him to hit rehab to treat his alcohol problem.
His character in Tyler Nelson and Michael Schwartz’s SXSW award-winner coincidentally seems to fit hand-in-glove. He plays Tyler, a down and out fisherman on the run from local competitors and carrying the guilt of a mistake that changed the course of his life, while still haunted by the memory of his older brother Mark (Jon Bernthal who is only seen in brief flashbacks). It’s a tale of redemption and self-discovery that might have hit a nerve or two when LaBeouf dried out and one year on he appears to be in a better frame of mind.
The Peanut Butter Falcon also makes a big step forward in terms of onscreen representation with the casting of a young man with Down syndrome in a lead role. Gottsagen’s character was specially written for him by Nelson and Schwartz and it proves essential to making this Huckleberry Finn meets Rain Man crossover work. Gottsagen plays a slightly different version of himself called Zak, forced by authorities to live in an old people’s care home because no other place of residence can be found. But he tries breaking out at every opportunity because he wants to become a wrestler and follow in the footsteps of his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (the rarely now-seen Thomas Haden Church).
Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) volunteers at the centre and looks out for Zak as much as she can but is nowhere to be seen when playful resident, Carl (Bruce Dern) helps him escape late one evening. Wearing only his underpants, Zak runs for his life into the night and finds his way into Tyler’s boat where he hides away. Tyler attracts drama wherever he goes and after burning down $12,000 worth of fishing equipment owned by unfriendly rival, Duncan (John Hawkes), he’s soon on the run too. When he initially discovers Zak he has no interest in helping, but eventually decides to help take him to the Salt Water Redneck wresting school.
By all accounts it’s a pretty thin premise but because the characters are made to count you sail through the 90 minutes with relative ease. Story wise there’s very little new about Nelson and Schwartz’s film, but that is something they are no doubt fully aware of too. On closer inspection the narrative nuts and bolts would probably start to pop out, but thanks to good all-round casting, none of that really matters too much. And while never going full-on Coen Brothers, there is more than a hint of their influence felt in the location and the people they happen across on their road/sea trip.
There’s a kindness to the film that enables it to avoid becoming just another quirky indie buddy flick joking its way to the end. Gottsagen aspires to be a full-time actor and the part serves as a metaphor for his dreams and the obstacles he has to overcome to get there. Yet, Nelson and Schwartz ensure condescension is avoided so there is no patting themselves on the back, or patronisation of Zak. His friendship with Tyler is wholly believable and it is their evolving relationship that carries the film. Gottsagen wonderfully subverts lazy expectations with a funny and sensitive performance, while LaBeouf gives complexity and heart to a character that at first isn’t easy to warm to.
The cinematography also goes a long way in helping to smooth over the rougher edges of the film. DP Nigel Bluck captures the lyrical beauty of North Carolina, with the reed-filled waters and dusky plains playing a key part in making Tyler and Zak’s world and bond feel authentic. It’s that same kind of glowing warmth that turns a well-worn formula into a special Southern brew with plenty of charm to spare. And although essentially a fable, the film reminds us that the world is a complicated place and none of us are in any position to judge someone solely on their appearance or past actions – as tempting as that often might be.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in select UK cinemas on October 18.