Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, 2018.
Written and Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Tony Greenhand, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Kim Gordon, and Udo Kier.
On the rocky path to sobriety after a life-changing accident, John Callahan discovers the healing power of art, willing his injured hands into drawing hilarious, often controversial cartoons, which bring him a new lease on life.
Alcoholism is a messy, disorientating thing. It’s incoherent and oft destructive, cutting memories into scattered snapshots like puzzle pieces impossible to put together. Gus Van Sant understands this, and his latest, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot – his best work in a decade – is an aptly scattershot, anarchic portrayal of alcoholism played almost as if a series of vignettes, loosely glued together by the faint whiff of cheap tequila.
Joaquin Phoenix is John Callahan, a lifer alcoholic, defined by a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse. He wanders from party to party, chatting up girls years younger, spiking his own beer with whiskey, playing up his disorientation as something charming. He meets Dexter (Jack Black), a kindred spirit, and the two bring it upon themselves to party across town, dipping into bars and theme parks as if two teenagers who recently discovered alco-pops. This brief friendship ultimately leads to the crash that results in the paralyzing of John Callahan.
Van Sant intercuts this with scenes of recovery: Callahan meets Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish physical therapist, Callahan in group therapy led by the charismatic Donny (Jonah Hill), Callahan finding solace in the crude cartoons that bring him a new lease of life.
All this is cut wildly, almost to the point of incoherence. It has the feel of Callahan, mid session and mid conversation, finding a multitude of tangents and consistently following them down strange, winding paths. It’s a device that on occasions feels too scattershot, but Van Sant finds the balance, and whilst messy, it feels necessary.
Phoenix too puts in a performance impressively nuanced. His Callahan manages to hide his alcoholism through a fog of charm, and following his accident; Phoenix never plays up the caricature of his disability. There have been fair discussions as to the ethical quandaries of an able-bodied actor playing that of someone physically disabled and those discussions are necessary, but in the case of Don’t Worry… Phoenix fits it like a glove.
It’s the balance of moments of physical and emotional paralysis that heightens his performance from simply being that of an impression.
Van Sant plays up Hill’s almost annoying charm, giving him the leeway to put in a career best performance. Donny is smarmy, wealthy and self-proud, calling his therapy group “his piglets,” and rummaging through their complex history in order to find a breakthrough. Hill occasionally plays up his campness with a certain whiff of stereotyping, but it’s a small dot on a performance deeply affecting.
Jack Black, in what is a glorified cameo, in his brief time on screen also manages to put on a career best performance.
It’s scattershot nature does result in certain moments erring towards the meandering and at just shy of two hours, it’s too long, with the occasional vignette susceptible for the cut.
Since Milk back in ’08, Van Sant’s work has lacked any real focus, but in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, he’s found his footing again and it’s his best in a decade.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★