Review: Strong Performances Lead the Way In 'Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot'
This film was seen at the 44th Seattle International International Film Festival. The film is now in wide release in Seattle. You can read UW Film Club’s interview with director Gus Van Sant and actor Beth Ditto here.
After a critical misstep in Sea of Trees, Gus Van Sant returns with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (DWHWGFOF). The film has long been on the back burner for Van Sant who started it in the early 2000s with the late Robin Williams originally attached to star, but after a series of untimely set backs, was ultimately delayed. Now, in his first written and directed work since Paranoid Park in 2007, Van Sant has picked the project back up with a new set of stars and an aim to tell the story of a man seeking sobriety. The result is a film with terrific performances that make the film worth the watch, but which are complicated by the nonlinear narrative Van Sant strings together.
Our story follows John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix): a struggling alcoholic who gets into a car accident that leaves him paralyzed. In an effort to save himself from his destructive behavior, he joins an AA group to help cure him of his addiction. Stubborn and persistent, Callahan finds the road to recover to be much harder than he anticipated, but finds an outlet in drawing cartoons that soon find a place in a local paper.
The film takes a nonlinear approach to its story telling. Cutting between various pre- and post-accident moments, we get to see alternating portraits of Callahan: one of him suffering from his affliction and the other of him trying to recover from it. The back and forth is the most jarring aspect of the film as it can often disorient the viewer; at times, it can feel as if you are continuing a sequence only to learn via continuity that the film is now jumping in time. Perhaps done to replicate the haziness of Callahan’s life, perhaps done to as a stylistic choice, but nonetheless, a jarring effect.
The film is largely carried by terrific performances across the board. After an award worthy performance in You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix delivers another well-acted performance as John Callahan; showing the frustrations of addiction, the turbulence of recovery, and the acceptance in moving forward, it is a multifaceted performance that provides the back bone of the film. In supporting roles, we have Jonah Hill, Jack Black, and Rooney Mara — the former two being terrific while the later unnecessary. Hill plays Callahan’s sponsor and carries a smart and light persona that is underscored by his own personal issues. It’s a career best performance that can only be rivaled by his role as Donnie in The Wolf of Wallstreet. Black on the other hand plays a very minor role — so small that he only appears in three scenes —, but, even its minuteness, he still fires on all cylinders; Black plays Callahan’s acquaintance who causes the paralyzing accident and serves as a step in Callahan’s recovery process. While small, his third and final scene is the best three minutes of Jack Black the world has even seen, as we see a man freed from a decade of guilt in the course of forty-five seconds.
On the short end is Mara who’s role is questionable in the film. Serving as a love interest, Mara plays a nurse who starts out as an aide for Callahan, but during a later encounter, they start becoming romantically involved. This romance could be described as nothing short of a stint as her involvement comes and goes quickly, acting as a brief moment in Callahan’s recovery process. It has aspects of contributing to Callahan’s overall character, but it’s rather minor, and could be omitted from the film without question. It’s an unfortunate waste of talent.
These performances really are at the heart of DWHWGFOF. Callahan and the characters around him embody the multidimensional themes found on the road to recovery, and even though the film’s structure up ends some of what they accomplish, it can be appreciated for the incredible performances that are true standouts. If you are ok with piecing together the narrative, you can find solace in performances that move the emotional needle above the norm.