Gus Van Sant’s new biopic is about recovery and the mending of the human spirit. The most interesting thing is this story about paralyzed Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is not about his life in a wheelchair but about his recovery from alcoholism. Under any other director, it may be a different film. Van Sant has found a path to the human spirit and tapped into one of the world’s best actors to deliver a moving picture about the legitimate struggles of getting back on our feet, and, failing that, learning to live with our losses to recover spiritually.
The bulk of the material takes place in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Callahan is taken on for sponsorship by an excellent Jonah Hill who plays a gay man living off of an inheritance that is a couple generations removed from his own reality. It’s worth noting here that a fit Hill turns in his best performance yet and has transformed into a new talent to be taken seriously. Given the circumstances of its characters and the incredible truth about them, the film highlights how they spend their remaining time giving back to their program. They have gone through certain hell within their relationships and their disease of addiction and have emerged stronger figures of hope, with a great capacity to help others.
Callahan had been in a bad automobile accident after a night of drinking with a new ne’er-do-well played by an enthusiastic Jack Black. It’s initially his story that he was not at the wheel and so the consequences were not an effect of his own alcoholism. Throughout the picture he moves through all of the stages of grief, the loss of his fine motor functions, the loss of his alcohol, and the loss of his independent lifestyle outside of a wheelchair. It’s apparent before the accident he was already indisposed by his own demons and that being confined to a chair is familiar territory to his withheld emotional grieving.
What is striking is the amount of growth found within. These characters have radical shifts in their innermost selves. Phoenix is able to embody the feeling and purpose of Callahan’s twelve step program with every progression toward recovery. We see his acceptance of an atypical Higher Power, the inherent humor in making it something perverse, that will save him from himself. We see his struggle as the cartoonist who cannot fully control his body. When he experiences the relief of divulging his resentments, his fears, his amends, we feel all of this too, and experience it with him. This is a remarkable one man show of a movie and that between this and You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix is having the best year of his whole career. (Let’s all agree, The Master, 2012, is still a heightened, significant work.)
Van Sant applies his technique liberally. It’s shot with an eye for quirk but a great sympathy of the human condition. He goes inside meeting rooms without passing any immediate judgment, allowing his characters to hurt for us, before they heal, providing an authentic recovery process. Undermining the film’s heart is an artsy cut that pulls between moments of addiction and recovery without a defined purpose. The film has a strange edit to it that belies its sense of messaging about a person’s capacity for growth. Sometimes we do not know where exactly it’s cutting to, but eventually the pieces fit snugly into a well-shaped whole.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is adapted from Callahan’s memoir of the same name. With any biopic we must remember it tells one side of the story and an interpretation of one person’s side at that. That it’s illustrated with such a comical and big heart makes us forgive its single-mindedness about recovery—it truly is not worried about the paralyzed-for-life thing and does not take that on directly. What is there is a simple tale of accepting what life has given us and then using it to be of maximum benefit to those around us.