But Zak is not one to be held back. Much to the exasperation of his carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) he enlists the help of some of his fellow ‘inmates’ in making his escape (more than once!) When he finally succeeds, he falls in with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down and out, unemployed would-be fisherman who tends to secure his catch by stealing from others. When Tyler has to go on the run after wreaking a bit of havoc at the docks, Zak tags along and their adventure begins. Tyler is on his way to Florida and the dream of a better life. Zak is on his way to meet his hero, a TV wrestling character called The Salt Water Redneck.
All the characters in this film are unfulfilled in terms of what they hope (or had hoped) their lives might be. But none of them, ultimately, is defeated by that sense of unfulfillment. It’s what drives them forward and, to a large extent, so does what they see in each other. This is a tale about both personal resilience and the need we have for others to believe in what we most desire; to help us get there. In this movie, the ‘getting there’ is both literal (it’s a road trip) and metaphorical; each character grows as a result of the time they spend together. It’s certainly a film about the empowerment of a character like Zak to gain autonomy over his life in a world that would seek to minimise his autonomy because of his perceived disability. But the film is not a ‘worthy-message-movie’. Zak’s story is only the beginning. What’s surprising is that, in addition to Tyler and Eleanor (who we might assume to be the only other key characters in the story) we’re given a fourth story of self-actualisation when they meet up with Clint (Thomas Hayden Church) - AKA The Salt Water Redneck. This story which takes us into the final act is the icing on the cake and includes a lovely moment of magical-realism and a kind of twist at the end that cleverly plays with our emotions.
One of the strengths of the movie is the calibre of the supporting cast. In addition to Hayden Church’s role there are powerful and understated performances by Jon Bernthal as Tyler’s brother Mark, John Hawkes as Tyler’s nemesis, Duncan and his offsider Ratboy played by rapper Yelawolf (both of whom are hell bent on taking their revenge on Tyler for what he did at the docks), Bruce Dern in a lovely small role as Carl, Zak’s friend and accomplice at the old people’s home, and a great appearance by real life wrestler Jake ‘the snake’ Roberts as Salter Water Redneck’s friend Sam.
But the real acting chops are to be found in the central three characters. Gottsagen embodies the role of Zak with a charm and wry wit that is built of a strong sense of determination. Johnson finds a believable balance between what her job would tell her is the right thing to do, and what her heart would say is the right way to go. Her slow conversion to the carefree ways of Tyler and Zak’s road trip is lovely to watch. And, for me at least, LaBeouf has never been better. I’m often on the fence with his performances, but this film tips the balance in the direction of me feeling like he’s a very fine actor.
The screenplay by Nilson and Schwartz is written in a lean, easy, unobtrusive style that allows the story and the characters to emerge in their own natural time and it’s shot in the great outdoors of Georgia with a gentle and picturesque eye by cinematographer Nigel Bluck.
But what’s going on with that title? I hear you ask. Well, that would be telling and would spoil the moment of discovering its meaning. Suffice it to say that the explanation for the title is as satisfying as the rest of the film.