The good news is that his latest film, DON'T WORRY HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT, is a welcome return to form, however the bad news is that it's unlikely to find an audience in today's age of Disney-Marvel domination. Casting his attention to the true story of John Callahan - a quadriplegic cartoonist – Van Sant has crafted an outrageously humorous drama with a keen focus on character.
Following a drug and alcohol-fuelled night of recklessness, John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) gets into the car with an equally intoxicated driver (Jack Black) and ends up in a horrific accident. He is paralysed and faced with a life of immobility. After a long and gruelling rehabilitation he enters into an alternative support group lead by an eccentric free-living millionaire (Jonah Hill) whose outlook on life is as equally brutal in its honesty as it is earnest. With a new lease on life John becomes a cartoonist and becomes a highly sought after – and controversial – satirist.
DON'T WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT is not about his success, nor it is about his adversity, and while those components are obvious markers in his story, Van Sant has chosen to focus on the intimacy of Callahan's processes. The film plays out almost like a confessional, as Phoenix's character rides a rollercoaster of highs a lows, and while battling his inner-demons he strives to find his place in the world.
It is an uncomfortable film in some regards. It's full of self-absorbed people who have little regard for others. It's a marathon of deep character study, which cares more for conversation than it does a fluent narrative... and thats okay. As I watched Phoenix and the ensemble of fellow players nut out their issues my mind kept thinking about Woody Allen (I'm still allowed to say his name, right? Screw it, I love him) and how similar this structure was to something he would direct. And I wondered how he might have tackled the same material. Much the same would be my guess. And so with that in mind, you have a decent idea of what to expect.
Phoenix is excellent in the lead role, and he relishes the opportunity to unleash a heap of politically incorrect humour and self-depreciating wit. He absorbs the script and delivers his performance with the upmost sincerity, which will hopefully put him in with a chance at the next awards season. The supporting cast are excellent too, with Jonah Hill being the obvious stand-out. Give this guy an award while we're at it, because his turn as the guru-like counsellor is easily his most outstanding performance to date. It's a pleasure to watch him pivot between comedy and drama, as if skiing between flags, and when he plunges into serious-mode, its a sight to behold. Jack Black's limited role is also strong, with his later appearance lending the story added weight. The rest of the cast includes Rooney Mara, Mark Webber, Udo Kier and Kim Gordon. Once again, they all make up a powerful ensemble. Most surprising of all is a wonderful performance from punk rocker Beth Ditto (from the band The Gossip) who plays an outspoken conservative redneck in the support group. Heck, throw her an award too!
Gus Van Sant can rest easy. He's delivered a praise-worthy performance-piece, which resembles his work of old. Long-serving fans will be delighted to have him deliver the goods again, and they will respond to the film with adoration. Unsuspecting viewers, on the other hand, may struggle with the film's dedication to the workings of a mind, and it's focus on conversation. It is certainly a “talkie” film that will test some people's patience, but for those who enjoy intelligent and philosophical storytelling DON'T WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT will hit the spot.