Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill
Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot marks the third time that Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara have worked together, following Spike Jonze’s Her and Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene. Both actors are among the most vibrant, watchable and interesting presences in Hollywood today, and any film which features either of their names promises to be at least worthy of investigation.
Her was a little bit magical. Mary Magdalene was… quite beige. Where does Van Sant’s film land on this A-lister life line, especially considering his recent quality fluctuations? Where do we draw our ‘X’?
Phoenix plays John Callahan, the alcoholic cartoonist who was paralysed in a car accident and worked his way toward sobriety over the course of six years, with the aid of his girlfriend/nurse Annu (Mara). The story zigzags in time, also capturing Callahan pre-accident, always chasing a bottle. In light of the need for this before/after contrast, Van Sant is taken off the hook for casting an actor with fully functioning limbs (a recurrent hot topic in terms of representation). Indeed, Don’t Worry does pointedly feature some disabled actors. Yet still, Phoenix seems like an unusual choice given that Callahan was in his twenties during this time period.
Nevertheless, Phoenix makes the part his own, even beneath a distracting ginger wig. With his loud shirts and happy-go-lucky spirit, the pre-crash scenes echo his work for Paul Thomas Anderson in Inherent Vice. Those that follow – and more specifically those that also introduce Mara’s Swedish nurse – find him more subdued.
Mara feels curiously other in the picture; a too-perfect pixie-like beauty. On first appearance, you’d be forgiven for wondering if she’s merely a product of John’s addled imagination, like the acrobats he sees out his hospital window.
Also present (and playing very well against type) is Jonah Hill as Donnie; hippie leader of the AA meetings John starts attending. Hill (whose own directorial effort Mid90s is forthcoming) is perhaps this film’s best surprise, gifting us a character of unexpected sincerity. The supporting cast is also pocked with quirky choices that pay off, from forever-curio Udo Kier to some of Van Sant’s musician friends; Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon.
In the early days of the film’s inception, Robin Williams was mooted to star (a further age gap). His name and sensibility might explain why Van Sant’s finished film carries a degree of saccharine more commonly associated with Williams; as though an echo of his spirit was carried right through to post-production. It’s there in Danny Elfman’s whimsical, sentimental score, or the relative breeziness of tone throughout.
“I know three things about my real mother,” John says in the film several times, “She was Irish American, she had red hair, she was a schoolteacher. Oh yeah, she didn’t want me. So, four things.”
We see these words performed for different audiences and for different reasons. In the main, John uses this joke as a self-deprecating method of selling himself; selling his sense of humour; painting himself as charismatic (he is). The outlier is how he says it in AA. The tone is different. Less guarded. In the edit, Van Sant has these contrasting deliveries slam up against one another. It asks us to consider the facades we paint; the versions of ourselves we make, and our motives in the process.
Mixing up time has another wider-reaching effect. The sense of journey from one state to another is scrambled, nullified. Not only does it make for a more engaging, patchwork experience, it underscores the old truism of addiction as an illness; something lived with, existing in a state of fluctuating permanence.