Film Commentary: 'The Peanut Butter Falcon'
By Gary Keene
“Tyler. Tyler. Tyler: am I going to die?”
“Yes Zak, it’s a matter of time, but that’s not the question. The question is, ‘Will they tell a good story about you when you’re gone?’” Tyler then proceeds to put Zak’s life in danger and save him, all in one scene.
No question, this movie tells a good story, but the keys to its success are Zack Gottsagen as Zak, and Shia LaBeouf as Tyler. The infectious charm of their personal relationship suffuses the film with sincerity, and the teachable moments, while unspectacular, are solid and emotionally authentic.
Zak is an orphaned young man with Down syndrome, housed/trapped in a nursing home, where he passes time watching old TV pro wrestling videos of “the Saltwater Redneck.” Eventually he escapes with nothing but his underwear – and a dream of getting to the Redneck’s wrestling school. If he can train there, and learn the Redneck’s signature “Atomic Throw,” Zak believes he will be a “hero” who takes care of others, instead of a man-child being taken care of by others. He will take flight as the “Peanut Butter Falcon.”
“Tyler. Tyler. Tyler: am I going to die? ... Yes Zak, it’s a matter of time, but that’s not the question. The question is, ‘Will they tell a good story about you when you’re gone?’”
Tyler is maybe a good guy who for sure does bad things. Working as a commercial fisherman, he steals others’ crab pots and then sets fire to them when caught. Maybe this has to do with his drinking, which contributed to his brother’s death. Whatever, he’s on the run from the crab fishermen, hoping to restart/redeem himself wherever he can get beyond his past.
When he takes off, he finds the escaped Zak hiding in his boat. Now they are both on the run, self-styled “bad boys on the lam” – which the story will prove false. These are good guys, and the story is their mutual formation and revelation as heroes.
Set on the shoreline of Virginia and the Carolinas, two large visual metaphors are at work: flatness and water – actually, a lot of flat water. The camera emphasizes the wide expanse of marshes and waters of their journey; it indicates they are on the bottom and can’t get any lower. But over the course of their journey, they will find ways to lift up each other.
The water itself is at first functional—a vehicle—but soon becomes transformational, even sacramental. They start on Tyler’s boat, and when it fails, we see Zak sitting in the shoreline water, at the edge of his journey into self-agency. He tells Tyler that he can’t swim, which sets up not one but two scenes where Tyler is compelled to save him. Water is always life and death and change. Later Tyler teaches Zak how to swim, even dive into the water as they continue on their way.
Water as sacrament becomes overt when they stumble onto a blind preacher who asks with a pointed gun, “Are you black or white?” The following silence is cut by the sound of a warning shot – “WHITE!” Zak says. “I knows you were, I could smell you. But now tell me, are you God-fearing?”
Soon he is counseling them on sheep versus wolves, and discerns they are sheep that need to be made clean. Tyler asserts he’s more of a “baptism by fire” kind of guy, so it’s Zak who ends up in the water for a formal baptism. The preacher sends them on their pilgrimage with the blessing, “May all the wolves of your past be laid to rest.”
But the wolves are still hunting, the crabbers chasing Tyler with violent retribution in hand. And while Zak is chasing his dream of meeting the Saltwater Redneck, soon his former caretaker from the nursing home will also hunt him down, doomed to clip the Falcon’s wings. So it all comes down to the Atomic Throw.
There are a lot of simple, subtle, lovely, teachable scenes in this movie, but it all has to wrap up in 97 minutes. So yes, we get to the Redneck abruptly, and yes, he’s a fake, faded has-been, no hero. But as Tyler explains to Zak, “This is Clint, a regular guy like you and me” – inferring that anyone could be a hero. Despite his former fakery, Clint turns out to be a good guy who steps up, puts the costume back on, shows Zak some moves, and gets him into a weekly neighborhood backyard wrestling match: finally it’s Falcon-time!
And yes, the Falcon is ridiculous in his cardboard-and-duct-tape outfit. And yes, his opponent “Samson” isn’t going to play nice and instead cheats and slams Zak around the ring. And of course, the crabbers chasing Tyler are going to show up with a tire iron to cleave his skull. And no, I haven’t mentioned the burgeoning romance between Tyler and Eleanor the nursing home caregiver come to take Zak and now having second thoughts. And no, I won’t say how the movie ends.
All you really need to know is that when the time comes, Zak believes. When they meet Clint, Tyler explains they’ve “done some hard traveling to get here” and he’s promised Zak to meet the infamous Redneck. It’s a big deal: “There’s a lot riding on this, because he believes in you, and that’s a hard thing to do, to believe in something.”
Zak believes: sincerely in the Redneck, in Tyler, and ultimately in himself. So yes, he picks up that old coot Samson, lifts him overhead and uses the Atomic Throw to toss the Bad Guy in each of us, all of us, out of the ring. You’ll cheer, because you too will believe this Falcon can fly, because we all need to fly.
A modern Mark Twain style adventure story, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON tells the story of Zak (Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who runs away from a residential nursing home to follow his dream of attending the professional wrestling school of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). A strange turn of events pairs him on the road with Tyler (LaBeouf), a small time outlaw on the run, who becomes Zak’s unlikely coach and ally. Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whisky, find God, catch fish, and convince Eleanor (Johnson), a kind nursing home employee charged with Zak’s return, to join them on their journey.
Official Film Website: https://www.thepeanutbutterfalconmovie.com
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes; available online: Amazon Prime, Hulu.
The Rev. Gary Keene served as Executive Director of Connectional Ministries and Assistant to four bishops in three annual conferences across five western states. In addition, he served as pastor in congregations “from small to tall”, recently retiring after seven years in his appointment—where movies were a regular feature. Keene will be writing film commentaries on a regular basis for UMCdiscipleship.org. Films reviewed will be currently available, not necessarily blockbuster or even mainstream, with a few recent classics occasionally dropped in. Suggestions welcomed, bring your own popcorn.