Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a film from Gus Van Sant. The visionary director helmed the meditative Cobain biopic Last Days, the school shooting drama Elephant, the inspirational political biopic Milk, the obscure Nicole Kidman-led To Die For, ’70s time capsule Drugstore Cowboy and the poetic My Own Private Idaho with the late River Phoenix. While “bold” and “remarkable” would cover most of his films, he’s also responsible for the likes of more mainstream-friendly films such as Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Promised Land. The subpar Psycho remake aside, Van Sant’s a versatile chameleon of a filmmaker who like Anton Corbijn was blooded on alternative music videos.
As you can see, Van Sant has a way of slinking into your field of vision without you realising it’s his work. Not shouting through his megaphone, he let’s the work speak for itself. Courageous enough to tackle a film like the contentious Elephant, which most people remember him for, he’s able to tap into a rich strain of feel good with his Matt Damon-sized access card.
His latest offering, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is essentially a blend of his experimental and accessible approachs. A biopic centred on divisive cartoonist John Callahan, who was too edgy for MAD magazine and The New Yorker, it explores the man’s lifelong struggle with alcohol and a life-changing event that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Realising the healing power of art, Callahan found a renewed sense of purpose through his newfound talent.
Gus Van Sant has worked with some of the best actors of this generation and now includes Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jack Black and Jonah Hill to that growing list. Phoenix echoes My Own Private Idaho but also informs the tone of Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Now widely known for bringing Arthur Fleck into focus as the new and grittier Joker 2.0, he’s supremely watchable, mirroring Van Sant’s appetite for the arthouse going drama genre. This describes Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, which is also a foray into dark comedy for Van Sant. Riffing off Callahan’s cartoons, which reflected his penchant to flirt with edgy, raw and controversial it’s also a timely biopic toying with society’s heightened sensitivity toward everything.
“I prefer joystick to control column.”
A brilliant actor, he sinks into the leading role as he’s done so many times before… embracing the good, the bad and the ugly of his performance without judgement. Confined to a wheelchair, you can imagine Phoenix staying in the chair as often as possible on set, resulting in a rich on-screen familiarity. It’s refreshing to see a quadriplegic lead character in a feature film and Phoenix captures the nuances of Callahan’s rehabilitation, alcohol dependency and abandonment issues without becoming flippant or overly sympathetic. He’s supported by dependable co-stars in Mara and Black, who always show up, with an almost unrecognisable Hill playing a tough love sponsor and mentor.
Callahan’s life story is honest and poignant, grappling with a setback and learning to rely on others again. Seeing his cartoons animated, wrestling with his troubled history and fitting in with the oddball support group, it’s good to see Phoenix giving it his all. The wry comedic undertone lightens the true weight of the drama in a similar fashion to the biopic of National Lampoon’s Douglas Kenney biopic, A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Both period comedy drama biopics about troubled yet brilliant individuals with a knack for being a misfit, there are many parallels.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is built on its soulful true story, fine cast and charismatic performances. Van Sant captures some beautiful moments within the dramedy of it all as Callahan’s self-deprecation and dependency create wonderfully human moments. The film’s edit is ambitious yet captivating, creating flashbacks and flashforwards to create an all-encompassing portrait of the man through his wild sense of humour and overcoming challenges with a little help from his friends. This non-linear storytelling does tip the film into the realm of arthouse but it’s largely reeled back by its unabashed humanity and full performances from Phoenix and Hill.
The bottom line: Amusing