The Peanut Butter Falcon

I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. “Moonlight“, the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. “Mud“, which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don’t care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I’ve mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf’s character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf’s Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac’s care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in “Sideways”, as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can’t appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as “feel-good” movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us.

Bad Times at the El Royale

A few weeks ago on the Lambcast, I mentioned this film as one of my most anticipated of the Fall season. That it opened on the same weekend as “First Man” and I still have not seen that film, is a testament as to how great my interest was. It has a compelling cast, an interesting setting and the trailer hints at violence, double crosses and surprises that will delight us. For once the ads don’t lie. This movie has a whole set of twists and turns that are character based rather than plot conveniences. The narrative is non-sequential and as a result build tension but releases that tension in very unexpected ways. There was only one moment that did not seem true to the story, and it gets explained in a less than satisfactory manner, but this was a minor quibble in a film filled with unexpected treats.

The set up is slow but it reveals character secrets in a sly manner that keeps us guessing and anticipating. Some characters seem likable to begin with but turn into something else, others are obnoxious but have something valuable to them anyway, and all of them are only connected by the fact that they are at this one particular location. The “El Royale”  may be modeled after the Cal-Neva club in Lake Tahoe. Stradling the border of California and Nevada, the club was a resort for the celebrity class but also an investment by shady characters in the underworld. Frank Sinatra was an owner of the club and some of his friends in the organized crime world had dealings with the gambling and celebrities. None of that comes up directly in the story, but it is strongly hinted that the resort in the film is owned by the underworld, and even though they have lost their gambling license they still have ways to make the investment pay off.

After the arrival of the guests at the hotel, the story slips from a chronological structure to a series of flashbacks centered around each of the occupied rooms at the mostly empty resort. The characters are revealed by room number and the back stories are filled in. There is a criminal seeking a hidden cache of cash that we learned about in the opening of the movie which was set ten years earlier. A vacuum cleaner salesman appears to have a bug problem and there may or may not be a kidnapping taking place. The script, written by Director Drew Goddard, is not unlike his previous film “The Cabin in the Woods”. It turns a series of seemingly unrelated character pieces into a whole by the end of the movie. In my opinion this was much more successful at making the twists work because the film is less gimmicky and relies on the characters so much more. Jeff Bridges is the biggest name and his role gives him a chance to stretch a few muscles that he has not relied on in a number of years. While he is playing a grizzled character, it is one imbued with a odd sense of defiant melancholia. Cynthia Erivo plays a down trodden singer who is a lot sharper and world wise than she at first appears. She is also a remarkably good singer who manages to make a couple of scenes work really well as a result. Jon Hamm’s character is confusing at first and aside from some potentially insensitive racial comments might be viewed as a good guy in all of this. The film is set approximately 1970 but as I said, it trails back at times to story threads from a decade earlier.

Dakota Johnson keeps her clothes on in this film and is reasonably well cast. This movie mixes the gangster story with a horrifying twist on a late sixties nightmare of a Manson style cult. Such a cult requires a charismatic center who seems to make sense but is even crazier than the world he thinks himself to be, enter Chris Helmsworth. It’s not hard to believe that lost souls could fall under his spell and when we get to the question of real evil in the story, he leaves no doubt where it resides. The director wisely lets us imagine some things about the back stories which may actually be grimmer than what we see on the screen. If there is a revelation of an actor in the film, it is young Lewis Pullman,  who as a bell/captain manager of the hotel, has secrets he is actually desperate to reveal. If any of the stories are under developed, it might be his, but I only think that in hindsight because I suddenly want to know more, not because I need to know more.

Comparisons to Tarantino films are inevitable because of the crime milieu, the non-linear story telling and the sometimes humorous dialogue that the characters exchange. There are sudden moments of violence and characters that we have come to connect with may turnout to be mistakes or to be short for this world. I think it was all well balanced as a story but it kept me off balance as a viewer. The casino setting and the time period are great ways to make the story feel more real since characters like this have to exist in another dimension anyway, but it still has to be one that is familiar. It also then justifies the use of a whole lot of great music as backgammon as well. This is a show piece for all concerned. The actors get to sink their teeth into characters that will be completely memorable, and the director gets to show off his style while entertaining us and keeping us in suspense. As far as I’m concerned, it was a “Good Time” at the El Royale.