Directed by Gus Van Sant
This is a movie about quadriplegic John Callahan’s journey to sobriety. Along the way he enlists the help of a sponsor, Donnie and a budding interest in cartooning. Well, that and forgiving everyone who may have hurt him, including himself.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is concerned with process. In this case it’s the twelve step process. John (Joaquin Phoenix) needs a lot of help on a road to recovery that doesn’t begin until long after a devastating car accident that leaves him paralyzed from the chest down.
The film is told through multiple timelines, introducing us to John as a young, active but addicted house painter as well as to the handicapped, somewhat self-assured version giving a cathartic presentation onstage to a large audience. We even glimpse some of the AA meetings he will attend in between these moments in time.
Van Sant throws this all at us from the start. We never really meet John in one particular moment in time. From the very beginning he is a collection of all these images and characterizations. This paints quite the portrait as we see him as reckless, amusing, empathetic, stubborn and a cross between Mr. Rogers and Freddie Quell from The Master.
John is an enigma, and the story will be about breaking down his particular maladies and the reasons for his alcoholism. He is a puzzle from the start, and by the end it’s very clear (to us and to him) what drives his addiction.
It’s because of those repeated time jumps as well as a few underdeveloped characters that this movie feels a bit scattered. The crux of the movie is the healing relationship between two broken people, John and his sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), but we’re also introduced to characters played by Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein, Jack Black and others who are made to seem important to the story but who get very little screen time.
That being said, I found that the final, cathartic notes of the film resonated, almost in spite of itself. So this is a film that’s a little unkept and at times cliche, but enough of it touches on some kind of truth.
I’ve always been a fan of movies about process. You see it in the macro shots of the printing press in Spielberg’s The Post or in the quiet details of Mike’s work in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. You also see it typically in heist movies and courtroom dramas.
This Gus Van Sant film takes the time to look at the process of healing, and it’s such a universal, daunting undertaking that I find it hard not to be captivated by such a thing. John has a very specific condition, and the movie simplifies the underlying problems by attributing them most directly to John’s feelings of abandonment as an orphan. All that matters, narrative-speaking, is that there’s something which made John drink, just like there’s something that makes us engage in the things we don’t always want to engage in, no matter the severity of those vices.
John Callahan’s story is a heightened version of something everyone goes through. He has no choice but to move forward, considering the permanence of his disability, and as one of the characters says, part of him will have to die in this process. That’s what transformation is.
And I always find that to be a welcome story. Life is about transforming, and narrative cinema is about character transformations. These shifts are often made to correlate directly with individual moments in one’s journey, and while that’s not really how real life works, in retrospect I think we all attribute certain changes to certain inciting incidents in our own life.
Memory has a way of simplifying and categorizing the past, and that’s what Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot does. It’s a reminder that in most cases we can overcome anything, and our brain will find a way to attach meaning to life’s trials and tribulations. If we can pull something of value from our suffering, then that might make it worth it in the end.
Up Next: Witness (1985), Dinner With Friends (2001), The Hangman (1959)