Category Archives: Now Showing

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Producer: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Lije Sarki and David Thies
Director: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Writer: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Wayne DeHart, Jake "Thr Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley and Yelawolf
Studio: Roadside Attractions

B+

A picaresque journey from Virginia to Florida with some unlikely traveling companions, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a small film with a big heart. It is also notable for a casting choice that gives it special distinction, though one hopes that it’s one that will become less extraordinary in the future.

It involves Zack Gottsagen, who plays Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home in Richmond because the state has no other facility in which he can be housed. Gottsagen actually has the condition.

Frustrated after spending years in the home in spite of the kindness shown him by sympathetic nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak engineers his escape with the help of his cantankerous roommate Carl (Bruce Dern, as usual delightfully crabby), though it leaves him clothed only in his underwear. His aim is not merely freedom, but the fulfillment of a dream to study pro wrestling at a Georgia school run by his idol Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a grappler whom he’s watched obsessively on old video tapes.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman struggling to make ends meet since the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen only in flashback), falls afoul of his nasty rival Duncan (John Hawkes), and retaliates by releasing the guy’s catch of crabs. He then flees in his rusty old boat, with Duncan and his minion Ratboy (Yelawolf) in pursuit.

What Tyler doesn’t know is that Zak has hidden himself under a tarp on the boat. And when he does discover the young man, he’s not at all pleased. But he reluctantly takes the young man under his wing, teaching him to swim and shoot a gun along the way, and they develop a fraternal bond.. Traveling by boat, raft, and on foot, they proceed down the Virginia and Carolina coasts, but not entirely alone: Eleanor catches up with them and creates a threesome. But of course there’s always the danger that Duncan and Ratboy will show up as well.

In his chance meeting with Eleanor at a general store, Tyler mentions that the young man she’s seeking might be living his own version of a Mark Twain story like Huckleberry Finn, and that’s precisely what “Falcon” is; and while it might not match its model (what movie could?), it’s a genial modern variant. It too is episodic, making room for vignettes along the way, the best probably being an encounter with a pistol-packing blind man (Wayne DeHart), who insists on baptizing them before giving them provisions to continue their odyssey.

The essence of the tale, however, is the relationship that develops between Zak and Tyler, and as played by the open-faced, enthusiastic, utterly committed Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who morphs with considerable nuance from the surly young man of his first scenes to the caring fellow of the final act, it’s a touching one. This is the story of Tyler’s redemption as well as Zak’s engagement with the world, and LaBeouf makes it credible. Johnson’s Eleanor has less shading than her eventual companions, but the actress endows her with the necessary sweetness.

The movie culminates, of course, with the trio’s arrival at the wrestling school, which is hardly the thriving enterprise that Zak expects. But Salt Water (an engagingly crusty cameo by Church) proves as open to his would-be student’s charms as Eleanor and Tyler, and enlists others—played by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley, elder statesmen in the pro wrestling world—to help Zak realize his dream, though the outcome avoids the note of easy triumph one might anticipate.

Directed in a gentle, unfussy manner by first-timers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote the script with Gottsagen in mind, “Falcon” boasts a production design (by Gabrael Wilson) that captures the seediness of the surroundings without overemphasizing it, and naturalistic cinematography by Nigel Bluck, and moves at unforced but not languid pace thanks to the editing by Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller. The music by Jonathan Sadoff, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pilekny and Gabe Witcher is supportive, not intrusive.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon”—the title comes from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling persona—is a lovely tale of an unusual friendship, one that earns your affection rather than demanding it.

GWEN

Producer: Hilary Bevan Jones and Tom Nash
Director: William McGregor
Writer: William McGregor
Stars: Eleanor Worthingto-Cox, Maxine Peake, Jodie Innes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Gwion Glyn, Richard Harrington and Richard Elfyn
Studio: RLJ Entertainment

C+

A bleak drama about women struggling to survive in the male-dominated, industrializing countryside of Wales in the nineteenth century, “Gwen” at first carries suggestions of supernatural evil afoot, but ultimately William McGregor’s debut film discloses that the real horror lies in man’s capacity for cruelty and greed. While visually striking and atmospheric, the film is hobbled by its narrative murkiness.

The audience’s perspective is that of the titular character (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teen scraping out a living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a desolate plot of land in craggy Snowdonia, where they raise potatoes and keep a flock of sheep. Elen’s husband is gone—she tells the girls that he’s off soldiering, and will return to them, though there are suggestions that’s not the case.

The region is suffused with death: a family living nearby has died suddenly—it’s announced they succumbed to cholera—and the heart of an animal is nailed to the door of the women’s isolated stone cabin, a perpetually gloomy place where Gwen hears strange noises, sees wispy apparitions, and has nightmares—while the wind shrieks constantly outside under a slate-gray sky. The mood of foreboding is made all the more dire by Elen’s strictness with the girls, which can take a sharp, nasty edge.

Elen is also subject to increasingly frequent fits, which lead her to shut herself up alone in her room at night, cutting her arms, though whether as a primitive mode of medicinal bloodletting or as some sort of occult practice is not clear. Gwen seeks help for her from a kindly local doctor (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), but while he provides a bottle of medicine, he explains that she will need to pay for it, since his master, the local mine baron, is not a generous man.

In fact, Elen is in particular disfavor with him, since she is a hold-out against his effort to expand his empire by acquiring more land for his quarry. When the family’s sheep suddenly die and their potatoes spoil, it might be his work—or, alternatively, the result of some inexplicable malignant force. What’s clear is that as Elen’s malady becomes public, local hostility to her grows, despite the sympathy shown toward Gwen by one young man.

The escalating mini-war reaches a climax in a stunning act of brutality, an attack on the family’s home by a mob of torch-carrying locals, preceded by a direct assault on Elen that she and Gwen respond to with extreme prejudice. But as is noted at one point, if a man steals a loaf of bread they put him in jail, but if he steals a farm, they make him a lord; the conclusion of “Gwen” is depicted as inevitable, given the callousness of the time and place.

What most stands out in “Gwen” is the performance of Worthington-Cox, who gives Gwen a look of haunted desperation that is compelling throughout. Peake does good work, too, but in a distinctly subordinate role, and no one else in the cast really stands out.

The other exceptional element in the film is the visuals. Taken together Laura Ellis Cricks’ production design, the set decoration by Candice Marchlewski and Ellie Pash, Dinah Collin’s costumes and Adam Etherington’s cinematography create an ambience of darkness and dread that overlays the veneer of historical accuracy with a gothic sensibility. The backgrounds give the story a Dickensian feel in which Worthington-Cox, in particular, can shine.

And yet while one can respect much about “Gwen,” overall its dilatory pacing—courtesy of McGregor and his editor Mark Towns—italicizes the fact that the script is somewhat muddled and confused. Perhaps that is intended to reflect the title character’s state of mind, but it doesn’t make things any more accessible for a viewer.

One can therefore chalk the movie up with the old cliché—a promising but uneven debut.