The last time a Gus Van Sant movie premiered at a major film festival, the film was “The Sea of Trees” and the festival was Cannes, where the movie was booed unmercifully at its first screening.
So it’s with a degree of relief that we can report that Van Sant’s new film, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” was met with nothing but applause when it premiered on Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
And to be sure, “Don’t Worry” is a far better movie than the inert “Sea of Trees.” Originally in the works not long after Van Sant made “Good Will Hunting” in 1997, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan, the Portland cartoonist who began his career after an auto accident rendered him a quadriplegic at the age of 21.
The accident that injured Callahan came after a full day of heavy drinking, and Van Sant structures the film like the 12-step program Callahan went through to combat his alcoholism. But it’s hardly as linear as that sounds; the director uses a fragmentary style that jumps around in time and keeps an audience off balance.
The first half of the film is essentially a string of disjointed degradations, many of which Callahan brings upon himself. Then he hits rock bottom and has a hallucination that his mother (who put him up for adoption when he was born) appears to him and tells him to stop drinking. So he does.
Obviously it’s not that simple, though his progress through a 12-step program presided over by a filthy-rich, disconcertingly beatific guru type (Jonah Hill) is marred not by any relapses, but only by his slightly bad attitude.
At the same time, Callahan decides he needs to become a cartoonist even though his control over his hands is limited, and immediately attracts attention with a crude style that fits his transgressive sense of humor. We never see him become as famous and successful as the real Callahan did, but Van Sant is after an impressionistic portrait, not a timeline.
The post-hallucination section of the film is slightly less disjointed than the opening stretch, as Van Sant’s quirk of choice becomes letting the 12-step sessions run on and on and on. (The movie clocks in at less than two hours, but it feels significantly longer.)
While the director originally discussed the role with Robin Williams, Van Sant ended up drawing flak for casting Phoenix, an able-bodied actor, in a disabled role. The director has said he would have been happy to cast a disabled actor if one was right for the part, though he’s added that Callahan, who died in 2010, wanted to be played by a movie star.
As it is, Phoenix throws himself into the role fiercely and gives the transition from rage to peace an emotional punch. Jack Black gets to do his Jack Black thing early in the film, and to tug a few heartstrings later on, and the supporting cast includes everyone from German actor Udo Kier to indie-rock luminaries Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.
The oddest role of all goes to Rooney Mara, who uncharacteristically has a part with no edge at all. She plays a Swedish nurse-turned-stewardess who becomes Callahan’s girlfriend and is so sweetly understanding at every moment that you kind of wonder if she’s another of his hallucinations.
But then, Van Sant clearly was out to sow a few seeds of confusion in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” (The title, by the way, comes from a Callahan cartoon that depicts a posse of horsemen in the desert coming across an empty wheelchair.)
You can consider this a partial rebound from “The Sea of Trees,” while still wishing that he could have come back all the way.