Wednesday 14 November 2018

Hot wheels: "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot"

Over his long, generally interesting, sometimes wayward career on the fringes of Portland and Hollywood, Gus Van Sant has habitually steadied himself with true-life stories: his Columbine abstraction Elephant won him the Cannes Palme d'Or in 2003, and five years later Milk, Van Sant's biopic of crusading politician Harvey Milk, returned this free-roaming indie spirit to the awards-circuit red carpet. After a run of variable projects (2011's Restless, 2012's Promised Land and 2015's The Sea of Trees) which went un- or underdistributed in the UK, Van Sant's Amazon-backed comeback Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot emerges as a tribute to a Portland-local celebrity: one John Callahan (embodied here by Joaquin Phoenix), a gifted cartoonist who just happened to operate out of a wheelchair. The title is drawn from Callahan's memoir describing his battles with dependency issues - we see him topping up a beer with tequila in the hours before the car accident that left him quadriplegic - but that title originated as the caption to a typically droll Callahan doodle in which a Wild West posse come across an abandoned wheelchair in the desert. The image kicks a laugh out of you, but there's also pain in there; as in the cartoon, so in the film entire.

If at first that film comes on as scattered and scrambled, this is very much in line with the story of a man belatedly attempting to get that story straight and, in so doing, pull himself back together. Callahan's narrative is framed several times over: ultimately, it's a tale being told in triumph to an adoring theatre audience (by the now middle-aged and happily sober cartoonist), but we also chance upon it being workshopped with a bunch of kids who help Callahan up off the street one afternoon, and spend large chunks hearing it recounted in late Seventies/early Eighties rehab sessions - overseen by rich hippie Donnie (Jonah Hill) - to a crowd of unlikely fellow travellers ranging from Udo Kier to Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto. (Van Sant retains just about the oddest contacts book in showbusiness.) This throughline is annotated with flashbacks to Callahan's days before the chair, and animated extrapolations from the cartoonist's back catalogue; these are overlaid with a jazzy, riffing Danny Elfman score. 

Although some of these crazy cuts are finessed via nifty scrolling montages, wheeling us through selected stages in Callahan's progress, clearly the polished studio slickness of Van Sant's Finding Forrester days is several decades behind us. An encounter with a nurse presents in such questionable taste we wonder if it's not just a Callahan fantasy, yet it's offered up as broadly as factual as anything else on screen; after comprehensively outshining her offscreen beau in Easter's Mary Magdalene, Rooney Mara winds up with an altogether more spectral role here as a Swedish masseur-turned-stewardess whose primary care function is to tell our boy how handsome he is before promptly jumping his bones. (Again, we sense Van Sant merrily printing the Callahan legend.) One or two interactions - most notably with Carrie Brownstein's indifferent caseworker - are so brusque they may as well be deleted scenes.

Yet slowly, and not unskilfully, Van Sant pieces these bits and pieces, these highs and lows, into a framework that is not just coherent but quietly moving; he's taken an idiosyncratic approach to what is, it transpires, a broadly conventional ten-step narrative, but it makes sense and works, and the recovery story touches us as the story of a pal who had emerged from rehab might. Don't Worry finds its centre in Phoenix himself, who brings his own unique gravity even to the untethered Callahan stumbling across four-lane traffic in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops in his quest for booze, then palpably shuts down in the wake of his hospitalisation, barely managing to speak in whispers to Mara's Annu. The rehab sessions prove crucial to the film's success and to its protagonist's recovery: here, Van Sant shows us different personalities coming at Callahan from different angles, forcing him to unfurl once more, and to find a response to his troubles beyond reaching for the bottle and crying woe is me. 

These scenes take their cue from Hill's newfound mellowness - as Donnie, he fosters exactly that safe space in which healing and forgiveness become possibilities - but Ditto is equally impressive as a downhome loudmouth with the thickest skin in Christendom: between her and Savages' Jehnny Beth in the upcoming An Impossible Love, 2018 is clearly the year of surprising turns from indie-rock frontwomen. The nature of Callahan's recovery reminds us of the Van Sant oeuvre's eternal search for self-expression - emotional-mathematical in Good Will Huntingdeadly in Elephant, political in Milk. In this telling, Callahan's non-PC doodles, light relief from unbearable internal tensions, serve to drag up a sense of humour - a reason to laugh, a reason to live - suppressed at the time of his accident. Even when the film is veering every which way, Phoenix keeps his performance linear, or linear with a few signature wobbles and flourishes, like the cartoonist's shaky-handed penmanship. We can always trace this Callahan's tracks to see how far into this process he is, and how far he still has to go. He got far enough for his story to take on considerable human interest, and Van Sant's movie carries us quite some way along with him.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Amazon Prime.

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