Great acting, scenery lift feel-good movie P.B. Falcon

By Leonard Heldreth
Our films this month include a rafting trip down the southern Atlantic coast, a hard look at what it takes to be an aggressive man, and an adaptation of a Shirley Jackson novel.


Where would a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon come from, and why would writers/directors like Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz give their first film such a far-fetched name? It all started in 2016 when Nilson and Schwartz attended a symposium for disabled actors and met Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome. As they tried to explain that there weren’t many parts for people with his condition, he suggested that they just do one together.
As a result, the two men wrote a film script with Zack as the central character and Josh Brolin as the major supporting character, but Brolin had to cancel out because of scheduling difficulties with Deadpool 2. With Brolin’s help they were able to acquire Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church, along with pro-wrestlers Mick “Mankind” Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
The film was made with Zack Gottsagen playing himself in the lead.
Zack has been abandoned by his family, and at the beginning of the film he is sheltered in a senior citizens home because the state had no facilities for people with his problem. His caregiver is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), and he shares a room with a crusty Bruce Dern, who keeps encouraging him to escape and realize his dream to become a professional wrestler.
Zack wants to attend a professional wrestling school run by the “Saltwater Redneck”(Thomas Haden Church), whom he’s seen on a video cassette, but the school is in Florida and Zack is in South Carolina with no money or help to get to Florida. Nonetheless, Zack escapes, wearing only his underwear, and hides out under the tarp on a crab boat. The boat belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), but because he has stolen some crabs and burned the nets of another fisherman, he has to get away, with Zack hiding in the boat. Before long the two men have abandoned the boat and are running through the Southern Atlantic wetlands and swamps with the bad guys in hot pursuit.
Obviously, the filmmakers stole just a little from Huck and Jim’s adventures going down the Mississippi, but that’s okay because the wetland photography is stunning, and once they put some space between them and their pursuers, the pace is just right. They also use Twain’s episodic structure, where the two run into various characters and situations as they travel. One of the most memorable characters is a blind black preacher played by the excellent Wayne DeHart who threatens them with his shotgun but then gives them what they need for a raft. He also baptizes them and bestows a blessing to set them free from “the wolves of the past.”
By this time Eleanor, the caregiver, has caught up with them, and she must decide whether to take Zack back to the nursing home or to join them on their trip to find the Saltwater Redneck’s wrestling school. Of course, she chooses the latter (it helps that she is financially independent), and other adventures follow before they reach the wrestling school.
One of the best aspects of the film is the developing relationship between Tyler and Zack. Tyler has lost a brother who is seen only in flashback and is obviously still grieving; Zack is still looking for a family to replace the one that abandoned him. The two actors create a bond that manages to be warm and loving without becoming sentimental or trite. The fine acting and gorgeous photography make up for any rough spots in the plot or believability problems in the wrestling camp. It’s definitely a “feel-good” film in the best sense of the word.
Oh, the title? It’s the wrestling name that Zack takes because he likes to dress up like a falcon with leaves for feathers, and he and Tyler had to subsist mostly on peanut butter as they rafted down the river. Since Zack is the star of the film, it’s appropriate that it should be named after him.


Some reviewers felt that if you crossed The Karate Kid with Fight Club, the result would be something like The Art of Self-Defense, but such a conclusion oversimplifies all three films. While the most recent film has aspects of the first two, it generates its own brand of toxic masculinity that is at least as destructive as the others, and its plot line is more chaotic.
The focus is on Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a wimpy young man who lives in an unidentified city and works for an unidentified accounting firm. The time period is equally ambiguous: Casey has a fuzzy-screened tv set, VHS cassettes are still in use, and he has an antiquated answering machine. Smart phones apparently do not exist in this milieu. Pornography is available not from the internet (only one unidentifiable computer is seen) but by copying pages from risque magazines. There is something deliberately vaguely off about the entire setting, a quality which carries over to the stilted dialogue and most of the action.
Everything about Casey is quintessentially non-masculine by traditional standards, including his name: when he answers the phone, he often hears,“May I speak with Ms. Casey Davies?”
His only friend is his dachshund, and his attempts to be sociable at work are pathetic. His life hits bottom one night when he goes out to buy some dog food and is beaten up by three thugs on motorcycles, to whom he subsequently offers his wallet. When he recovers, he decides to protect himself by buying a gun, but the gun dealer says he can’t have it until the waiting period for the background check is over. Farther down the street he wanders into a stripmall karate club and becomes intrigued by this different way of protecting himself.
Casey starts taking lessons under the direction of the club owner, known only as sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who begins to transform Casey into his version of a man, a version that is very strict and codified. “Karate is a language,” sensei declares with a straight face, adding that his trainees must learn to punch with their feet and kick with their hands; he develops his analogies in ways that may entrance his students but will cause most viewers to snicker. He has to get a bigger, more masculine dog (the dachshund turns up dead one evening), start studying German instead of French, and become more aggressive in his interactions with everyone. The directions sensei gives Casey are both ridiculous and dangerous, and they are conveyed in dialogue that makes sense only about half the time, but Casey so much wants to become “that which intimidates me,” that he accepts sensei’s hypermasculine platitudes. Once he’s on the road to being more masculine, Casey is invited to join the night karate class where the action is more violent, the members give each other nude massages to cool-down after sparring, and a chance for revenge against the bikers appears. Casey becomes so engrossed in his karate lessons that he stays away from work for months. The one female in the dojo, a brown belt named Anna (Imogen Poots) knows she will never reach black belt status no matter what she does because, as sensei tells her, she isn’t masculine enough.
As Casey strives to become that which intimidates him, he changes in ways that sensei had not anticipated, and the unexpected confrontation at the end not only follows sensei’s directions but brings Casey to a new point in his life. Whether he can accept and handle this new uber-masculinity is another question.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as Casey, pathetic at the beginning and frightening at the end, and Alessandro Nivola is equally good as sensei–he makes his speeches almost believable. The Art of Self-Defense is a curious film—unrealistic, troubling, and sometimes very funny. Not as epic or as challenging as Fight Club, it seems destined for a similar cult status, and will likely be discussed and argued about for some time.


Shirley Jackson’s fiction has always intrigued filmmakers, and the 1963 version of The Haunting of Hill House is one of the finest adaptations of a ghost story ever made (we may take a look in the future at the new tv series with the same name). We Have Always Lived in the Castle has Gothic elements–poisonings, murder, fake witchcraft, and crowd violence–but it remains within the real world. Eighteen-year-old Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) and her older sister, Constance (Alexandra Daddario), live together in the Blackwood mansion with their handicapped Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Six years before, their parents had died in an accidental poisoning that left Julian in a wheelchair. Constance, after an investigation, was cleared of the crime, but many of the townspeople still hold her responsible. When cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives in his red sports car, he says he just wants to establish relations with this branch of the family, but it soon becomes obvious to everyone but Constance that he’s after the family fortune.
The rest of the film follows Charles’ machinations to get the money, the townspeople’s desire for revenge on the girls, and the likelihood of further accidents happening in the castle. The crowd scene near the end echoes the behavior of the crowd in Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery.” While not as fine a film as the original Hill House, this production should be of interest to most Jackson fans.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can be found at marquettemonthly.org.)

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