Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant
The film about cartoonist John Callahan begins the same way his life is composed, a series of fragments, time scrambled around. We see him recovered and then back at the bottom again, sneaking bottles of tequila in the alley behind a liquor store. His body lies motionless on the pavement, his Volkswagen Beetle totaled, all glimpsed before he meets Dexter and goes on the drinking binge that will change his life forever. We see him whipping at high speed in his wheelchair, cars screeching to a halt before we know the circumstances that put him in that chair.
Gus Van Sant has been a filmmaker that I’ve always had difficulty forming an opinion about. Some of his work is masterful (Elephant, Milk), while other times, he delivers complete pablum trash (Sea of Trees). Don’t Worry, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a wonderfully acted film thanks to people like Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill. The story of John Callahan is a highly interesting one, he’s brash personality clashing with the expectations people have for someone wheelchair-bound. He’s not a sympathetic central character, John lies, boozes, and treats the people around him like trash.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie, Callahan’s eventual friend & Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Donnie is an even more interesting character than John, with the audience eventually learning he’s an openly gay man who has grown up in the lap of luxury but knows he doesn’t deserve all this. It’s not until the third act that Donnie finally divulges just some of his recovery story to John. We rightfully don’t get the full details but instead are shown the emotion and regret Donnie feels after all these years, especially for his ex-partner.
There are little performances by actors and musicians sprinkled throughout that are very notable. The singer Beth Ditto plays Reba, a member of John’s AA group. She is absolutely charming, and you can tell she enjoys the role. Indie actor Mark Webber has a small but interesting role as another group member. The one actor whose presence is underwhelming is Rooney Mara. I’m not a massive fan of Mara’s, but here she is completely underserved by the script. We see her for one scene as John’s physical therapist when he is in recovery and then she ends up his girlfriend, this is a relationship we learn little to nothing about.
The film presents an unexpected exploration of being disabled. Early on, after just getting his wheelchair and some mobility, John meets with a therapist who explains how sex will be for him now. He can no longer be mentally aroused, it will have to be physical contact. This is presented casually, never trying to make a joke out of the idea of a disabled person having a sex life. There’s a subplot where John is dealing with prying questions from a social services assessor who is hesitant to give John more payments or fix his wheelchair, which he runs down so quickly. John is more focused on being bull-headed than charming, which leads to his struggles working with this social worker.
This isn’t a life-changing film, definitely not as powerful as a picture like Milk. It leans a little too much into the bright and cheery with some low, dark times. Van Sant is definitely shirking off the standard biopic formula and trying to construct a more intriguing narrative, which is definitely present in the first act. This was a film that felt like it has shades of the late Hal Ashby woven through it, and I wondered how that director would have dealt with the complicated nature of John’s cartoons. Overall, this is definitely worth a watch for another strong performance from Phoenix.