Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Gus Van Sant hit a bit of a snag following his Oscar winning Harvey Milk biopic Milk. In 2008, the film was my choice for best picture, but since then, the director of modern classics such as Good Will Hunting and To Die For has been unable to deliver a film that could resonate in memory without IMDb searching. Coming back to the biopic realm, Van Sant has delivered Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, an acerbic but gentle recollection of cartoonist John Callahan’s journey from becoming paralyzed in a drunk driving accident through his recovery process in AA to find a second life out from under the bottle.
A tad scattered in structure, the film monopolizes on the uncertainty and hindered memory of an alcoholic mind. Callahan, deftly performed by Joaquin Phoenix in his second tremendous role of the year (with Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers and Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene still to surface), spins his wheels as he tries to manage withdrawal symptoms before and after the debilitating car accident. Hunting for answers and hiding behind excuses, Phoenix is strong as the booze dependent Callahan but is spectacular in his emotional growth in his recovery. Forced to face up to the reasons for his unhappiness, the scenes focusing on his AA group, led by flamboyant Donnie (Jonah Hill) open his wounds to let the excuses bleed out. The scenes are brutally honest and aim the addiction storyline away from a sob story and toward something more revelatory about hiding behind reasons rather than hunting for resolution. Hill, never better, receives his “piglets” as their sponsor in a fatherly manner: he rips them a new one with every chance he gets, but it’s always with love. Younger than most of those he helps, the affluent gay character lives in a parallel path to Callahan; struggling with outsider status as they face their individual battles with addiction and bodily failures. The two learn from each other as they combat their loneliness.
I’m usually resistant to roles of this type: an able-bodied actor playing a disabled role; but the extent of the movie with the pre-accident Callahan and the physically adept performance from Phoenix kept me invested in this portrayal of a man who used his unfortunate accident as a springboard to fix the problems present before his injuries. Unlike Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, another strong role, Phoenix provides more than endless misery leading to a happy ending. Gus Van Sant’s film manages dignity for its subjects, as un-pitiable as their situations seem. A wonderful comeback for the director