Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
In his first screenwriting effort since Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant attempted to go home again to his roots as an indie filmmaker. Through a study of consequential junctures in John Callahan’s (Joaquin Phoenix) life—the drunken accident at 21 that severed his spine, the painful adjustments to his life as a quadriplegic, and the recovery from alcoholism that helped him focus on his art—Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot lovingly parses the boundary-pushing cartoonist’s struggles with deep and unresolved adverse childhood experiences.
Time shifts freely in this 2018 biopic; fragmented scenes repeat throughout the film, often with no warning or context. This nonlinear presentation of key segments in Callahan’s life is deliberately disorienting. Van Sant’s intention, it appears, is not to structure a story for the viewer’s pleasure, but to represent the mind of a person whose past is perpetually present, like an albatross around the neck.
Buttressing this unwieldy framework are a number of strong performances. It comes as no surprise with Van Sant’s remarkable talent for casting, which launched Phoenix’s career in To Die For. Although Phoenix is predictably solid as Callahan, the most impressive performances come from the bevy of supporting roles.
Callahan’s friend and drunken abettor Dexter (Jack Black) is first introduced as the embodiment of the invincibility of youth who, after a long night of party and bar hopping, drives the protagonist to his inevitable fate. These early scenes feel like a softened, yet standard, delivery of the charismatic Black most people are familiar with. However, when Callahan finds Dexter much later in life as part of his 12-step recovery process, Black impresses as a man replete with regret.
Even more striking is Donnie (Jonah Hill), a spiritually centered trust fund kid and Callahan’s AA sponsor. Van Sant’s penchant for naturalism helps draw out an incredibly delicate and sincere performance. During the movie’s press tour, Hill revealed that he had never been happier than when he was playing Donnie, and it shows.
However, the standout of the ensemble is Reba (Beth Ditto), a loud-mouthed redneck and fellow alcoholic Callahan meets through the AA support group Donnie runs from his house. Ditto pulls focus anytime she’s on screen with a mix of undeniable star power, and her full-throated approach to the character’s no-nonsense candor. It’s a stellar acting debut for the songstress in what is hopefully the beginning to a long movie career.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is an autuerial showcase of the skills that Van Sant honed over the course of his career. His distinct approach to outcast protagonists is on full display, and his ability to craft a film that allows the audience to view an onerous character humanistically is unparalleled. The film is also visually enthralling, with Van Sant and DP Christopher Blauvelt delivering the softcore grit that distinguishes the former’s oeuvre.
Van Sant’s intention [… is] to represent the mind of a person whose past is perpetually present, like an albatross around the neck.
Despite the strong cast and Van Sant’s skillful artistry, the movie doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of his best work. Aside from the jarring time jumps is an odd editorial choice from Van Sant and David Marks in the way that the film peppers clip reels throughout the film. It’s a complete disconnect from the tone.
Beyond that, the women in this film are one dimensional, only serving the needs of the main character. This lack of depth combined with the surrealist elements of the movie makes it difficult to believe Callahan’s relationship with Annu (Rooney Mara)—the nurse that he meets while hospitalized after his car accident—in spite of their on-screen chemistry.
Unfortunately, the movie distracts from itself too much to fully engage with its content. Phoenix is impossible to believe as a 21-year-old, making the time jumps even more confusing. The worst offender, however, is Phoenix’s Chucky-looking wig that, to quote Drag Race queen Phi Phi O’Hara, needs to go back to Party City where it belongs.
Although sometimes lacking, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is essential viewing when considering the Van Sant’s filmography. His craftsmanship produces a number of compelling moments throughout the film, and while it may be devisive at times, it’s just as enchanting, just like Van Sant’s body of work.