Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant
Gus Vant Sant has had an interesting career to say the least, and not all that dissimilar to his star in this film, Joaquin Phoenix. Both have made a handful of stellar films, some of which were small budget, independent darlings. But both also have a few question marks along the way. With Van Sant, it includes a few misses which seem odd, but with Phoenix, it has more to do with this strange foray into duping the world to think he retired to become a rapper for the sake of a Casey Affleck project. Very strange. Van Sant’s case a little more intriguing in my opinion. He has crafted some truly spectacular films which go from small indie like Elephant, to big Oscar winner like Milk. With each of his projects I await in anticipation, wondering whether its his next great film, or just another throwaway like Restless. Regardless, he usually has something to say, so I will continue to listen.
With Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Don’t worry, the story is not as unwieldy as the title is), Van Sant is telling the story of John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunk whose life is turned upside down after a night of partying with new friend Dexter (Jack Black) ends in an accident which leaves John permanently in a wheelchair. Struggling to deal with both his sobriety and his new found limitations, John turns to a support group spearheaded by the eccentric Donnie (Jonah Hill). He meets with these people, rarely finding what he needs (which he still believes to be another drink). Soon, he begins to follow the program and find new found meaning in his doodles, submitting them, along with their often irreverent humor, to be published and hopefully lead to him turning his life around.
I have a love/hate relationship with these types of movies. You probably know the ones. Where it starts and you’re intrigued. An interesting premise, an actor or two you enjoy seeing, etc. But then it starts going in these weird, somewhat unexpected ways. It’s not quite the movie you were expecting it to be and it doesn’t really sit all that well with you. Expectations are a weird, weird, wild thing which can manipulate just as much as a schmaltzy filmmaker. So you’re not loving the experience anymore, and then all of a sudden something switches, and you’re like, whoa, what the hell happened to the movie I wasn’t liking, this is now all of a sudden good. And at the end of the day, you’re forced to reckon with both experiences. Is the movie good because it flipped to good? Is it still bad because you didn’t really enjoy 2/3 of it? Or does what happened somehow reconcile the parts you didn’t like? Such was my experience with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, one of the most frustrating watches for me in 2018.
For much of this movie, I didn’t like John Callahan as a character. He didn’t have redeeming qualities, he didn’t have intriguing story arcs, I didn’t enjoy the interactions he was having, I generally did not see where it was going or why Callahan was the central figure of the narrative. He wasn’t all that likable, and he wasn’t so offensive that we could root against him (plus who roots against a drunk, that would be cruel as well). But somehow both Joaquin Phoenix and director Gus Van Sant insert a level of sympathy and eventually insert a surprising amount of love and care into the film that was missing for much of the rest of it. The final third of the film is truly moving filmmaking, as it takes this broken character and he changes from a caricature to this living, breathing, flawed human with a renewed will to live that is both refreshing and way more touching than it has any right to be. And that’s the magic of the performance and the filmmaking.
I think for me this is a case where the phenomenal closing act redeems what lead up to it, but only partially. There are still some scenes which don’t work for me, and Callahan in general doesn’t entirely work for me as a character to root for. It’s uneven, even though I think that is sort of the point and what makes the impact on the end so effective. It’s a delicate balance and I think Van Sant pulls it off for the most part. Like I said, this was a film I struggled with, and would perhaps have a chance to re-evaluate if I were to see it a second time, but for now I will say I tentatively enjoyed the accomplishment of this film. Like many Van Sant films before it, it is not the most easily digestible experience. There is not a whole lot of joy in the story being told here, but it’s the type of challenge with a worthy payoff in the end, and sometimes those experiences, as difficult as they might be, can be the most rewarding.