Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot trailer

The Film’s Performances

Jack Black begins the movie as a distinctly “Jack Black-esque” obnoxious oaf, though in seldom commended Jack Black fashion, his second appearance in the film (years after the accident) peels back the layers of humanity beneath this façade as Dexter reconciles, both with Callahan and with himself. It’s an expert bit of casting, aimed squarely at recognizing the pain hiding even with those who may not deserve it. Just as precise is the presence of Joaquin Phoenix as a man biting at his own soul, searching desperately for ways to escape a spiritual hell he may have created for himself, in a performance that rivals his work in Gladiator, The Master and You Were Never Really Here.

There is, of course, the question perpetually worth asking: in terms of opportunity, could this character have been played by a disabled actor? Perhaps. Scenes of Callahan before his accident are certainly a built-in excuse to cast someone able bodied, but regardless of the debatable real-world ethics, Phoenix delivers a tremendously pained performance, as a man whose physical limitation is merely one of a mountain of reasons for his stunted emotions, and that too only until he finds new freedom in his electric wheelchair. The wind blows through his mop of red hair as he charges down the street, finding moments of triumph that are unconnected to his larger journey, though perhaps their mere presence in otherwise gloomy days is connection enough. Phoenix responds, with confusion and frustration, to the circumstances around him and his inability to improve them, as if responding to the narrative structure itself. The story beats thrown his way ought to make things easier; the setups ought to have clearly defined payoffs. That they don’t sends Phoenix searching, as if exploring the depths of Callahan’s very soul, attempting to find answers that refuse to reveal themselves.

The film’s secret weapon, however, is Jonah Hill’s Donnie. If there were ever a doubt as to the comedian’s skill as a quiet dramatist, Donnie spends the length of the film in a withheld state that feels like it could shatter at any moment. He carries a painful past beneath his eyes, though one we aren’t made privy to. In his every scene, you can feel him struggling to turn his pain into something positive, steering a vessel that could go off course at any minute, away from a familiar iceberg and towards the rescue of others. But Donnie, like Annu, serves a subversive purpose.

Donnie is introduced to Callahan whilst speaking from a pedestal and backed by Christian symbols. His hair and beard are reminiscent of western depictions of Christ. But like Annu, rather than an external saviour Donnie is only an external facilitator of Callahan’s internal salvation, the kind that has no defined end-point. His relationship with Callahan is contentious, and it never ceases to be, but Donnie’s love for Callahan regardless makes him all the more Christ-like. Helping Callahan is Donnie’s own path to salvation; a means to helping himself by repairing his fractured soul. Every scene shared by Phoenix and Hill feels like it ought to lead to a profound realization about the universe itself. That it only leads to them a small step closer to understanding each other is, perhaps, profound in its own unassuming way.

The Long Road to Recovery

Donnie’s spiritual advice is a means to help himself as much as a means to a help others, a constant reminder of the battles he himself fights every single day. The structures of religion and spirituality, even those that exist to save us from ourselves, are ultimately human constructs. It’s still us that needs to do the saving.

Rather than a linear tale with defined Acts, broken up by decisions that feel final or from which the characters can’t return, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot presents its story in the form of repeating cycles. A spiral staircase that feels repetitive in its climbing, by design. Circumstances are most often outside the characters’ control, and are usually so vast that they can’t be dealt with in the form of a singular action, or a singular shift in mindset. They are, instead, gigantic blocks of stone that require a delicate chisel, and the dedication to sculpt one’s life back into a manageable shape, bit by bit, over decades.

In presenting problems and solutions in this cyclical manner, Van Sant and his cast craft a touching film that cuts straight to the heart of human experiences that are seldom canonized in fiction: the kind with no endings. Only those that begin, and those that we continue to wrestle with in the hopes of getting by.

***

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is in theaters today. You can read our review from the Sundance Film Festival here.

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