It may not seem like it, but it’s been ten years since director Gus Van Sant gave us the powerful and Oscar-winning biopic Milk. Since then, the filmmaker has been in somewhat of a slump, with three films (Restless, Promised Land, and The Sea of Trees) falling flat on their faces. You probably didn’t see any of them and you probably don’t need to. But with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Van Sant appears to have got his groove back with a film that’s a heart-warming and charming crowd-pleaser with a dash of irreverent humour and a stellar ensemble cast.
With his third film for 2018 (and another still to come), Joaquin Phoenix further cements his status as one of the most versatile actors of our generation. We know he can play a cartoonish, dastardly villain. We know he can rein it in to capture our empathy and affection. We know he can do batshit crazy. He can even voice a Disney-animated cartoon bear (forgotten that one, hadn’t you?). In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Phoenix delivers yet another sublime performance, filled with raw emotion, deep-seeded pain, twisted humour, and cathartic understanding.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot follows the life of John Callahan (Phoenix), a politically incorrect Portland quadriplegic cartoonist, known for his off-colour drawings which drew equal parts adulation and scorn. After being abandoned by his mother at birth, Callahan began his debilitating addiction to alcohol in his early teen years. When we meet Callahan in 1972, he’s a typical care-free 21-year-old, concerned only with his next drink and nothing else. But a fateful evening soon turns Callahan’s life upside down.
After a night of drinking with Dexter (a terrific Jack Black), a party bro Callahan had only just met, the pair climb into Callahan’s powder-blue VW bug, with a heavily-intoxicated Dexter behind the wheel. Unsurprisingly, he loses control of the vehicle and slams into a light pole at high speed, leaving Callahan in the hospital and paralysed from the neck down, while Dexter walks away without a single scratch. The accident only furthers Callahan’s alcoholism, leading to him spending the next several years continuing to numb his pain with the bottle, after regaining some use of both hands.
While Callahan attends AA sessions and attempts to quit the drink, it takes hitting rock bottom for him to truly wake up to himself. That arrives one particular evening, as he desperately and foolishly attempts to gain access to a bottle of vodka stashed high atop a shelf and, even more pathetically, a bottle of wine that accidentally rolled underneath a couch. In the midst of his agony, Callahan experiences a spiritual vision of his absent mother (Mireille Enos) which proves to be the lightbulb moment he needs to finally give up alcohol.
This moment leads to Callahan discovering an unorthodox alcoholic recovery meeting, led by Donnie (Jonah Hill, in terrific form), a flamboyantly gay, zen-like guru who runs the meetings in his extravagant and gaudy mansion. Donnie’s group of addicts, which he affectionately refers to as his “piglets,” is made up of a eclectic mix of quirky and eccentric characters including lonely housewife Corky (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame), deep-thinker Hans (German character actor Udo Kier), and sassy straight-shooter Reba (Beth Ditto of The Gossip fame, who threatens to steal the whole film). Under Donnie’s hippie, spiritual guidance, Callahan begins to tackle his demons and make peace with his disability, turning his pain into art by discovering his knack for crudely-drawn cartoons, elevated by their biting wit and sardonic humour.
The above plot summary sounds perfectly linear but Van Sant presents his film’s storyline in a rather jarring way, with the timeline constantly jumping and shuffling around from past to present. It’s a decidedly interesting choice by the director, but it tends to pull you out of the film momentarily, as you attempt to ascertain where we’ve suddenly landed in Callahan’s life. Phoenix’s appearance and physical state obviously provide clues as to what time period we’ve launched into, but it makes the film more difficult to connect with than it should.
Just as you’re acclimatising to Callahan’s emotional state within this particular moment of his life, you’re taken somewhere else and into an entirely different sense of his psyche and wellbeing. It’s an unnecessary complication that feels like an injustice to the narrative. That being said, once you accept this structure is here to stay, there’s a sense of acknowledgement and expectation with how the rest of your viewing experience will play out. It’s far from a fatal flaw and Van Sant must be applauded for attempting something unique, but it may affect your overall enjoyment of the film.
The narrative overcomes the frustrating method its presented in by tackling the familiar path of an addiction battle with a fresh perspective that will ring especially true with anyone who has faced similar demons. Callahan’s journey of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption are filled with a series of glorious highs and devastating lows that make his life so perfectly cinematic. As we saw with Milk, Van Sant knows how to capture the essence of a true-life character within the confines of a two-hour film, and his keenness for this genre is again on display here. As wildly frenetic as the film’s structure may be, you walk away with a true sense of who Callahan was and why he’s an artist worthy of appreciation and admiration.
That’s largely thanks to Phoenix’s terrific performance which hopefully continues to resonate come awards season (although voters are spoilt for choice with his work this year). Phoenix effortlessly slips into this role and completely disappears away from any assumptions you may have of him as a performer or his some-what unlikeable public persona. He captures both Callahan’s pain and joy with perfect precision, but it’s in his sly and cheeky humour that the performance becomes infectiously endearing and downright captivating.
The supporting cast is a dream, with Hill stealing focus within every scene he’s handed. It’s easy to forget Hill is a two-time Oscar nominee, but his intoxicating performance here reminds us of the brilliant and gifted actor often hidden within his goofy comedies. Again, this is a performance that demands awards consideration, with Hill infusing Donnie with a beautiful laid-back style and a genuine sense of affection for his chosen flock. It’s a performance full of grace and style that showcases Hill’s impressive talent for scene-stealing supporting turns.
The film’s heart and levity are delivered by Ditto as the no-nonsense Reba, who takes particular joy with calling Callahan out on his self-pity bullshit with a bevvy of one-liners that beg for this character to be given her own spin-off film. But it may be Black’s brief but powerful role that is the most surprisingly affecting. It’s a performance that runs no more than several minutes, but it’s one that will linger long in your mind. A reconciliation scene between Callahan and Dexter is perhaps the film’s crowning glory, with Black delivering a raw and earnest performance that will likely take your breath away.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot could easily have become a sappy, overly-sentimental piece of fluff, determined to bluntly bash its uplifting message of self-discovery and redemption. That’s obviously somewhat present, but Van Sant wisely avoids heavy doses of sentiment by presenting Callahan as an imperfect artist who struggled as much as he succeeded. There’s plenty here to make you feel good and inspired, but equal helpings of awareness that life can be a son of a bitch sometimes. A sense of humour is what really stops us going mad.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is in cinemas 27th September.