Perhaps the best description of the film The Peanut Butter Falcon would be to call it a concept movie. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, co-writers and co-directors, have fashioned a story that is not so much based on a true story as it is based on someone’s dream. That someone is lead actor Zack Gottsagen, presented here in his feature film debut. It is his own experience of living with Down Syndrome and trying to achieve his dreams that informs the character he plays, and The Peanut Butter Falcon manages to tread a delicate line between showcasing and patronizing that experience.
The story is straightforward enough. Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man living in an elderly care centre, watched over by the care worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Living there because he has no other alternatives or family to look out for him; Zak is well cared for but is nonetheless constantly on the hunt for an escape plan. He knows he doesn’t truly belong there and has his eye on busting out to find his way to where he feels he does belong: The Salt Water Redneck’s School of Wrestling.
When not trying to escape, Zak spends most of his time watching a nearly worn-out VHS copy of a wrestler named The Salt Water Redneck promoting his wrestling lessons. The Redneck, played by Thomas Haden Church, has Zak infatuated to the point that his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) is sick and tired of listening to him quote the lines from the videotape. Instead, he helps him get out.
With Zak on the move and Eleanor on his tail, we are also introduced to Tyler (LaBeouf), a very down-on-his-luck fisherman who has suffered the loss of a brother and seems bent on living a self-destructive life as a result. As you might guess, these three figures, all with their own baggage and objectives, connect and make the journey together. You can also guess, with Zak as the focus, that they all follow the path to meet the Salt Water Redneck and try to bring Zak’s own wrestling persona to life: The Peanut Butter Falcon.
The journey has its ups and downs for everyone, with not everyone turning out to be exactly who they seem. While there’s no need to spoil every little detail along the way, some space does have to be provided for the roles played by Mick Foley and Jake Roberts. Foley, as booker, ring announcer, and referee for a slightly better than backyard wrestling company, has a few lines and can certainly mug for a few cheap pops. Roberts has a just-as-brief but meatier role as the chosen opponent for Zak.
Again, not to spoil all of the details, but Roberts does not take it easy on The Peanut Butter Falcon as was agreed upon. You might call it the last great heel turn for The Snake.
With that heel turn comes a fairly typical Roberts performance in the ring — for his age, anyway. He does still, to paraphrase Goldberg, have one more bad-ass short-arm clothesline in him. Does he also have one more bad-ass DDT in him? Well, think about the ratio of times that Roberts has called for it versus actually landing it since, say, WrestleMania VII, take your best guess, then check out the movie to see for yourself.
Getting back to the development of the film: there’s a short but engaging making-of documentary included on the DVD that lets the creators talk about how a chance encounter with Gottsagen led to a discussion about opportunities that exist, or don’t, and how to make them happen for yourself. Gottsagen had dreams of being an actor and spoke to the filmmakers about what opportunities may await him in the world of film.
Nilson and Schwartz were blunt in their appraisal, telling Gottsagen that acting roles for those with Down Syndrome in mainstream feature films simply didn’t exist. Films featuring actors playing the part of people with a wide array of disabilities are, of course, multitude, but that wasn’t going to help Gottsagen get where he wanted to be. Instead, they would have to create the avenue for him.
Using Gottsagen’s dreams of becoming an actor and transposing them to someone dreaming of becoming a wrestler, the core was still the same: how does someone who is pushed to the side of opportunity find a way to break through? For their part, LeBeouf and Johnson, both of whom made their way to their own degrees of stardom with their own struggles, certainly, but quite different to those confronting Gottsagen, spoke of the strong connection formed among the trio through the production of the film. Dern spoke of how he wanted to be a part of the production, seeing it as having the potential to be “lightning in a bottle.”
It’s not wrong to see this as a movie like any other in almost every way. An actor must often find a way to inhabit a character using elements from his or her own life and augment the rest with their own imagination. Simply put, that’s what Gottsagen did, and yet it would also miss the point to not acknowledge the break from movie-making tradition to cast Gottsagen in a part that so closely mirrors his own life.
It will be most intriguing to see what happens for him next. In the meantime, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes the most of mixing these many intriguing elements together and crafts a very entertaining tale.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
|Directed By:||Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz|
|Written By:||Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz|
|Cast:||Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Mick Foley, Jake Roberts|
|Runtime:||1 hour and 37 minutes.|
Slam Wrestling's Hollywood Headlock Rating Scale:
1: Unsafe Worker (Avoid!)
2: Pre-Show Performer
3: Mid-Card Material
4: Main Eventer
5: World Title Winner