Drawing On Pain
John Callahan gets us further that he probably thought possible.
Instead of being a true celebration of the life, struggles, and achievements of controversial, quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, this new biopic from director Gus Van Sant ("Milk") uses Callahan's story as a vehicle to paint a bleak picture of alcoholism, with a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Eschewing traditional methods, Van Sant opts for a non-linear plot that jumps constantly to different times in Callahan's life. With this style we see the beginning and the end of the story within the first few scenes. Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix ("You Were Never Really Here") is shown alternately telling the same story, with different emotional tones, during two different events: at an AA meeting, and while receiving a local award for his work. The rest of the film is the tale of Callahan's coming to terms with becoming paralyzed, deciding he needs to become dry, and the herculean efforts it takes from him and those around him to successfully implement those changes.
The performances are the true highlights of this film. Immediately we see a wheelchair bound Joaquin Phoenix, who almost seems to be transformed. Throughout the movie you feel anger, self-pity, pain, and eventual resolve to gain control emanating from him. In fact, the only thing he can't successfully portray in this movie is a 21 year old, which was so far from the mark that I didn't realize that was supposed to be Callahan's age at the time of his accident until further reading after seeing the movie.
The scene of Callahan's accident and the build up to it introduces Jack Black ("Jumanji") as Callahan's friend Dexter, who is with him on the day of his crippling injury. For his opening scene Van Sant might as well have told Black to play a raunchy caricature of himself for how over the top it is. This is completely at odds with his second appearance late in the film, when Callahan comes to apologize to him. The emotional tone and range of the actors in this moment is a credit to both, and a high water mark for the film as a whole.
Finally, it would be a shame to not mention Jonah Hill's ("War Dogs") turn as Donnie, Callahan's AA sponsor. Donnie appears as AA's literal-looking version of 70's Jesus and at first seems to be a rather shallow character without much to offer. However, as the story unfolds, Hill is able to masterfully reveal a hidden depth and strength that make it apparent why so many other members of their AA group have gravitated towards Donnie to be their sponsor as well.
Even with all of these great performances, what makes this movie a must watch is how it tackles the issue of alcoholism and how it completely takes over ones' life. In an episode of "The West Wing" the character Leo McGary explains his condition this way: "The problem is, I don't want a drink. I want ten drinks." Asked he wants to drink because things in his life are really that bad, his response is, "No, (it's) because I'm an alcoholic." With "Don't Worry..." Van Sant is able to give us a two hour, visual representation of that answer.
Alcoholism is something that has probably touched almost all of our lives in one way or another, but it cannot be completely understood unless you are living it yourself. Despite being so ubiquitous, this is an issue that is still taboo to speak of openly in ones' day-to-day life. "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" makes alcoholism its centerpiece, showing how it is not just an issue of self-indulgence, but an aggressive medical and psychological condition. If for no other reason, the film is worth watching for this realization.