The Symbolism of the Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a work of the highest literary and dramatic skill. But because it has been described by many critics as a “feel good movie” I worry that its depth, symbolism, careful attention to detail, surgical development of themes and images might be lost. So in praise of this great film, let’s look at the art of the Peanut Butter Falcon.
Peanut Butter Falcon is a story about Zak (Zack Gottsagen), Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Zak is a 22 year old with Down Syndrome who wants to escape his retirement home where has lived since his family abandoned him and to go to a professional wrestling training camp. Tyler, also a young man, fisherman, and thief has a hard time keeping down jobs because he lost his brother one night when he fell asleep at the wheel. After setting fire to a rival’s fisherman's gear, Tyler sets on the road to Florida where he runs into Zak whom Tyler agrees to take to the wrestling school in Florida.
Eleanor works at the retirement home where Zak lives and will chase after after him before joining their journey
Like any good journey narrative, this external journey mirrors the internal journey, the transformation of persons and relationships.
Zak and Tyler as a pair are contrasting as well as complementary, similar and different. That is, they have multiple needs, multiple things that need transformation and one of them they share and one is different.
They’re similar in that they have both lost family and need a new one. But they are different in the following ways. Tyler is self-sufficient/independent and able-bodied, Zak is dependant and has a physical difficulty. And as they go through their journey both their similar needs and different difficulties will be transformed. Tyler’s journey will be a journey out of self-sufficiency and selfishness while Zak’s will be a journey out of his self-perception of deformity, disabled. And they will find this as they create a new family
The first two scenes of the movie open with solitary characters. A shot of Zak and then a shot of Tyler, symbolically communicating their lack of family, their loneliness. This will symbolically change by the end of the movie where the last frame will be Zak, Tyler, and Eleanor, a worker at the retirement home who will run away with them. But let’s not jump too quickly to the end.
When the story begins Tyler is stealing crabs from other fishermans’ traps. The other fisherman confront him, beat him up, and then Tyler sets fire to their equipment. The fisherman see the fire and start to chase after Tyler. Tyler escapes in a boat that unbeknownst to him, Zak hid himself in, looking for anyway to get to his wrestling school.
After some convincing, Tyler finally agrees to drop Zak off at the school on his way to Florida. Notice, Tyler begins thinking two false assumptions: first, that they are on different journeys and second, that he is leading Zak.
The first rule that Tyler establishes is that Zak cannot slow him down. So between geographically leading them and physically being faster, Tyler assumes that he is the independent, strong one, leading a physically slow, Down Syndrome boy down south.
But Tyler doesn’t realize that leading the physical journey pales in comparison to the importance of the internal journey of transformation and in that journey he is the follower.
This inversion of the leader follower relationship between Tyler and Zak is beautifully and symbolically communicated in multiple ways. First, Zak is the first to accept baptism. In response to the offer of baptism Tyler responds that he is more of a “baptism-by-fire-type.” The man performing the baptism says that he doesn’t perform those. But that creates an expectation of baptism by fire to come, and come it does.
Instead of accepting water baptism, Tyler will experience all sorts of baptismal adversity. First, his raft will be burned, baptism by literal fire, then he will physically hit with a metal bar and symbolically killed. I say symbolically killed because the director edited the sequence in the hospital to lead the viewer to believe Tyler was dead.
Zak did not have to endure all that baptismal fire because he didn’t have the self-sufficiency, the selfishness that Tyler had and instead accepted baptism. He acknowledged that he needed cleaning up, whereas Tyler needed to be shown that. Zak was leading Tyler in selflessness.
Tyler will slowly learn selflessness. He gives Zak his pants, then his boots, then food and drink. This is in contrast to his life of theft, take from others. And in the end, it is Tyler’s selflessness, self sacrifice, that almost gets him killed. He is so engrossed in Zak’s wrestling match that he is not looking around, protecting himself from attackers.
But the great irony is that Zak and Tyler fight their final battle at the same time, but each in their own way, and this is because they have different problems. Zak realizes his strength and is able to summon it against an older man who calls Zak a retard, a symbolic embodiment of Zak’s mistaken view that his down syndrome is a weakness, throwing the man out of the ring.
Tyler, wins his final battle as well, but by dying. His problem was never weakness, it was strength, thinking that he was strong and self-sufficient, and so his final battle is death, or defeat. But in a particular way, defeat as he is completely engrossed in another’s world, watching Zak’s strength. He is no longer focused on himself, but another.
This inversion is finally symbolized in the last scene where Zak, Elenor, and Tyler are riding in the car to Florida. Tyler is lying down, bandaged and bruised from his attack, Zak in the front. What is symbolically genius about this final scene is how it dramatically communicates the reversal.
When Zak and Tyler first meet they are in a vehicle, a boat, and Zak is hidden in the back, a passenger, a follower and Tyler is driving. In the final scene, Tyler is hidden in the back and Zack is in the front, leading position. Tyler is in the back with a physical deformity, symbolically communicating that Tyler has realized that it is not Zak who is disabled, but himself.