Gus Van Sant is a bold filmmaker. Hyper-restrained, brutal meditation on teenage violence in Elephant. Shakespearean adaptation populated by post-beatnik prostitutes and street rats in My Own Private Idaho. Prescient commentary on a dangerous media landscape in To Die For. Ill-advised and ultimately disastrous remake of a classic in Psycho. Even when they don’t work as intended, his films offer something unique and often refreshing.
Following what is arguably his biggest achievement in Milk, Van Sant fell into a slump with the flat, uninteresting Promised Land and the critically-panned, audience-ignored The Sea of Trees. Now he’s back with a return-to-form film, for better and worse.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a biopic of the late cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). It focuses predominantly on his life-long struggle with alcoholism, an affliction that caused the car wreck that rendered him quadriplegic. To match the turbulent journey of recovery, Van Sant tells the story out of order, bouncing around in time so that it takes until after Callahan’s accident to acclimate to the non-chronological storyline.
This adds energy to the film, as does Van Sant’s choice for mobile camera work. Instead of traditional edits. Van Sant will often instead zoom in and out to change shot scale or push behind a character’s head to cross the 180-degree line. They are dynamic choices that make simple conversations more cinematic.
Once one settles into the offbeat structure, the film loses something. It actively avoids the emotional cliches of this sort of narrative, which makes Callahan’s recovery process less maudlin than it would otherwise be. The final act, however, cannot help but take emotionally broad steps in wrapping up Callahan’s story. What is a brilliant introduction to the film, in which the scene crosscuts between Callahan giving the same speech to two very different crowds, gets undercut by how this speech concludes the film.
At least the casting of Phoenix is apt. Between this and You Were Never Really Here, he is having a great year. That the performances in the two films are so different is a testament to his ability to ease into a role. The repression of intense emotions in You Were Never Really Here yields a more intriguing performance, but he does do a great job of capturing this man’s personality over multiple stages in life.
Other actors in the film are not helped by how their characters are written. Jonah Hill is bringing a distinct performance to his AA sponsor character, but that character is initially too off-putting to sell the emotional high point of his performance later in the film. And Rooney Mara is sorely underutilized, disappearing for a long stretch of the film only to return and serve little purpose in the narrative.
The fluctuations in the effectiveness of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot can be seen in two visual inflection points. The temporal leap frogging that at first comes off as a frantic gimmick to make this biopic appear less conventional becomes a great structuring device when Van Sant illustrates a montage using a series of pan wipes. It is an innovative visual move that makes it feel as if we as an audience are sitting inside a spinning zoetrope revolving 360 degrees around Callahan’s pain and addiction.
At this moment, the unconventional storytelling falls into a nice groove. Watching Callahan’s arduous recovery process becomes engaging and personal. Every decision he makes, every sentence he says, holds more meaning. Later, Van Sant repeats the visual trick. This time, though, the montage is shown in a revolving tilt. We are no longer in a symbolic zoetrope, a self-reflexive nod toward the cinematic artifice that also pulls us into this real person’s story. We are somersaulting toward a resolution that fails to cash in on the immersive storytelling that came before.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)