Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a darkly-comic drama chronicling the life of a provocative Portland cartoonist following his paralysis in a drink-driving accident.

Despite an unwieldy title, Gus Van Sant's latest film Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot goes a little further than might be expected given its well-trodden subject matter of talent born of tragedy. This erratic, irreverent biopic slyly subverts expectations for the genre and twists its 'inspirational true story' into something darker, drier, yet still empathetic to its subject.

Based on the autobiography of the same name by John Callahan, 'Don't Worry' was originally optioned by the late Robin Williams with a view to playing the lead. In his stead, writer and director Van Sant has appointed another famous Joker to fill the role. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, an aimless alcoholic
who finds his life dramatically changed following a car crash which renders him paralysed from the shoulders down. In the period of recovery which follows, he gains some perspective on his life, some movement in his hands, and a talent for sketching darkly satirical cartoons. 'I draw these for a living,' he
explains to a group of skater boys examining his sketchbook in an early scene, 'but people complain because of the subject matter.' One can't help but draw a wry comparison between this line on Callahan's work and Van Sant's own style of film-making, which also often darts around the margins and colours outside the lines.

Much like Callahan's controversial cartoons, too, the tone of the film won't appeal to everyone. Modulating between dark humour and deep sadness, the shift in mood - even when maniacally underpinned by a hard-working soundtrack from Danny Elfman - can feel jarring, if not outright lacking the emotional stakes to work effectively. This may also be down to the risk the film takes in presenting
the action out of chronological order.

While he may 'not get far on foot,' the film has an intriguing, eccentric trajectory, echoing the graceful and balletic camerawork which characterises Van Sant's style. The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, just as the camera moves in circles around a newly-mobilised Callahan when he first gets in his wheelchair, or glides down the busy Portland streets. This non-linear approach, showing Callahan at different stages of his recovery - from both the car accident and from his alcoholism - is unusual for a biopic like this. It also affects how we read Callahan's arc. The accident doesn't trigger an immediate
change of heart and cold-turkey sobriety in our hero: we see him struggle, relapse, lash out at those around him, and again, while we may not know whether to laugh or cry at times, it's darkly refreshing to see the film take the road less travelled, narratively-speaking.

Phoenix is reliably excellent, as is the supporting cast. The Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the centre of Callahan's recovery are easily the highlights of the film given the excellent chemistry between the group. Jonah Hill as the firm-but-gentle disco-dancing Donnie Green is a standout as the group leader
and Callahan's sponsor, while erstwhile alt-rock icons Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein and Beth Ditto all put in brief but respectable appearances. Yet characterisation across the board is somewhat thin, and Rooney Mara's manic pixie dream girl Annu is as two-dimensional as one of Callahan's drawings.

Bolstered by strong performances, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is tonally unsteady, yet admirably resistant to cliche, and occasionally moving - even if your mileage may vary as to quite how far it'll take you.

 

Stacy Grouden