Gus Van Sant helms an unconventional biopic of a controversial, troubled artist

Joaquin Phoenix plays cartoonist John Callahan in the often fascinating Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

I certainly can’t accuse Gus van Sant of being predictable; as far as living American filmmakers go, he’s probably second to Steven Soderbergh in terms of the breadth, scope and variety of his body of work. He’s done Oscar bait (Milk, Good Will Hunting), scene-defining indies (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), formally challenging experimental work (Gerry, Elephant) and at least one movie that still remains, to this day, one of the most daringly pointless efforts ever released by a major studio (that would be his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho).

These days, though, van Sant is playing it extra safe. In the last decade, he’s made three films that have gone more or less unnoticed, with his last effort (The Sea of Trees) being so terrible that it barely got released at all. It’s clear that van Sant has a humanist-bordering-on-sappy streak to him that doesn’t always come off well in his finished product, which often border on the daring but finds itself too constrained by convention.

All of this honestly boded pretty poorly for Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a biopic of quadriplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan, played here by Joaquin Phoenix. Callahan was best known for his crude (both visually and content-wise) comics that depicted his own struggles with his disability, but it’s not like he was particularly well-known for it outside of a few circles. (Canadians of a certain age may remember the animated show Quads! which ruled the roost in the post-South Park years where it seemed all that we would ever need were cartoons where the protagonists swore a lot.) His story has little to do with the meteoric rise-and-fall usually reserved for artist biopics, and a story about Callahan’s disability would bring van Sant perilously close to the kind of disease-of-the-month stuff that he’s proven to be so-so at.

Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot ultimately proves to be a story about recovery, though van Sant wisely avoids taking us linearly through the 12 steps. Instead, van Sant presents a fragmented portrait of Callahan’s life from an aimless period in his early 20s to the drunk driving accident that left him paralyzed below the neck, often alternating with scenes of meetings with his sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), an independently wealthy trust-fund kid who has devoted his entire life and fortune to helping recovering addicts that he calls his “piglets.” Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot alternates freely between moments in Callahan’s life without necessarily juxtaposing them for effect; we see him attending a meeting before we see him meeting Donnie for the first time or even having his accident.

While hardly experimental or willfully disorienting, the film’s construction seems to have been used in part to deflate the expected weight of moments like this. All of the things that usually happen in a film exploring a tragedy/recovery arc happen, but they happen in seemingly random order without the big cathartic breakdown that their usual sequencing creates. This is mostly in line with Callahan’s own attitudes about his disability, where he alternates between wanting to speak crudely and honestly about his situation and being filled with dread and despair with regards to the limitations imposed by it. The end result is a film nowhere near as cheesy as it suggests, but also one that winds up isolating its best sequences and highlighting its worst ones.

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill

There’s the moment, of course, when Callahan has an epiphany. It comes to him in the form of the mother who gave him up at birth (played by Mireille Enos), and it is fucking bad. It is everything that this movie should not be: treacly, manipulative and corny. But it comes in the middle of some other stuff, not at the very end of the film; it’s bookended by scenes that have no direct bearing on it. It seems simple enough, but by jumbling up the major moments of Callahan’s life, van Sant at least manages to take the wind out of his worst impulses and the most worrisome aspects of the film.

It also applies to the film’s best scenes, like the one where Callahan finally reaches the step where he must make amends with the drinking buddy (Jack Black) that caused the accident that paralyzed him. Again, this is generally the kind of scene that makes or breaks the emotional tone of a movie — it’s way too easy to fall into Iñárritu-like sorrow of characters on their knees bellowing their angst at a vengeful God — and van Sant settles on an awkward, shuffling tone that feels so much more realistic than anything I’ve seen. It’s a truly great scene in a movie that seems defined by its desire to avoid the idea of Great Scenes in general.

Van Sant’s particular decision also lets two pretty important things fall by the wayside: Callahan’s art and Callahan’s relationship. Callahan’s comics are glimpsed throughout (and sometimes even animated as brief interstitials) but they don’t really feel that important to his life, partially because the film mostly eschews their tone when telling its own story. John Callahan was a caustic and sarcastic artist, but the film about his life isn’t, and one doesn’t really get a full sense of his artistic process in the final product. Similarly stamped down is his relationship with Annu (Rooney Mara), a physical therapist who first meets Callahan soon after his accident and becomes his girlfriend much further down the road. Annu’s character is a wispy apparition without much definition; she appears alongside Callahan almost as a narrative crutch and we never really get a sense of their relationship in any meaningful way.

Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a lot to handle, and part of its narrative balancing act is finding which parts of that lot are to be highlighted. It alternates between a weird comic energy (the meeting scenes are packed with a truly bizarre assortment of “piglets” that include Udo Kier, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Mark Webber and the Gossip’s Beth Ditto), a kind of sun-dappled self-help attitude that inevitably comes with the recovery territory, a warts-and-all exposé of the reality of Callahan’s disability and a weird, soppy life-affirming lifeline that runs through. No one could ever pull that off flawlessly — it’s just too much to do — but what van Sant has done with it is commendable. ■

Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot opens at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, July 20. Watch the trailer here: