I feel like I was predisposed to both love and hate Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. Hate, because on paper it seems like a hastily cobbled-together set of Oscar-bait tropes; a disabled man pursuing his dream and making friends along the way, while providing easy redemption for his gruff companion and his charming caregiver with a dark past. Love, because, on its face, it is a story about the essential joy of wrestling, an unexpectedly deep look at what that art can mean to a person and how it can drive them to do things that seem impossible.
My feelings about The Peanut Butter Falcon fall somewhere in the muddy middle. It’s certainly elevated beyond your typical saccharine road story by an electric and essential performance from its lead Zach Gottsagen, as well as the use of name actors Shia LeBoeuf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church in inspired casting choices. At the same time, it’s got a kind of earnest aw-shucksterism that’s nearly absent of subtext or meat beyond the surface. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie I’d normally seek out, if not for the wrestling connection, but The Peanut Butter Falcon exceeds expectations, even if it never really subverts them.
Zak, a man with Down’s Syndrome, a wicked sense of humour, and no family or support system, lives in an elder care home in North Carolina. He’s made easy friends with the other residents, including his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), to whom Zak subjects repeated viewings of a videotape of his hero, pro wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Zak is obsessed with attending the Redneck’s wrestling school, and makes several attempts to escape the home, to the amused chagrin of his caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Finally, one of Zak’s attempts succeeds. He makes a break for the shoreline and takes refuge in a boat belonging to the gruff, troubled fisherman Tyler (Shia LeBoeuf), who is on the run from two other fishermen (John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf). Tyler escapes the pair before discovering his stowaway, and after surprisingly little convincing, offers to take Zak to the wrestling school on his way down the coast. As they travel, they encounter a cast of characters from North Carolina mud country, and Eleanor eventually catches up with them and, again, with very little convincing, joins them on their journey.
Filmmakers Nilson and Schwartz discovered Gottsagen at a camp for disabled artists and wrote the movie around him, and Gottsagen is more than up to the task of anchoring the project. Gottsagen is more than the heart of this film, more than it’s lead. The Peanut Butter Falcon is his movie, in all ways. Sure, there are famous actors all over this thing, as well as a couple of my favourite wrestlers, but it’s a testament to Gottsagen that they fade into the background when he’s onscreen with them. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else as the Peanut Butter Falcon, and Gottsagen’s charm is easy and effortless, both in the screenplay and as an actor. Watching The Peanut Butter Falcon, it’s impossible not to believe you’re watching an all-time great talent spread his wings for the first time. The moment that Zak transforms himself into the Peanut Butter Falcon is as good as any origin story the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and certainly the WWE) has ever dreamt up.
This isn’t to say that LeBoeuf, Johnson, and Haden-Church don’t add to the film. LeBoeuf’s intensity is balanced by his paternal love for Zak and he leaves it all onscreen. Similarly, Johnson sheds every bit of the edginess she displayed in such the-opposite-of-this-movie projects as Fifty Shades Of Grey, Another Fifty Shades Of Grey, and Fifty Shades of Suspiria. You can see the sparkle in both actors’ eyes as they share scenes with Gottsagen. I also love Jake Roberts in this, as the salty old wrestler whose bitterness over his failed career is expressed with the kind of quiet menace he brought to his all-time great wrestling promos I loved as a kid. Mick Foley is also there.
As much as The Peanut Butter Falcon seems like a fantasy, there’s much in the details to ground it in reality. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck employs his True Detective beautiful griminess to masterful effect here, giving the film an essential sense of place. If you don’t feel like you’re out on those North Carolina deltas and tributaries, drifting alternatingly with a listlessness and with desperate purpose, smelling the smells and feeling the essence of those who inhabit this region, I’ll eat my hat. Like all great road movies, the journey is the point, and Bluck’s cinematography is a key element of that.
Unlike a lot of the movies I watch, for Biff Bam Pop! and in general, The Peanut Butter Falcon isn’t about throwing twists and swerves your way. It’s like a great, old-school wrestling match; exciting, but essentially predictable. The bad guys are going to get their asses kicked, and the heroes will triumph in the end. But none of that is terribly important. The journey is the point. Though it’s evocative of buddy road movies like The Wizard (1989) and Rain Man, and brings in some of the less-disturbing elements of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a fantastical story all it’s own. Put your expectations and predispositions aside, and let this one wash over you like the overbaked North Carolina seaside metaphor I was going to put here.
The Peanut Butter Falcon will be released theatrically in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa & Montreal on August 23, with a VOD/Digital release on November 26 from levelFILM.