As a resident of Portland, Oregon in the 1980s and 1990s, director Gus Van Sant became used to the sight of the iconic and iconoclastic cartoonist John Callahan buzzing around the city in his wheelchair. ‘He was a visible person on the street,’ Van Sant said recently on Marc Maron’s podcast, ‘because of his wheelchair and his bright red hair.’
Eight years after Callahan’s death, Van Sant has completed a project that was originally pitched to him two decades ago by Robin Williams, after Williams had bought the rights to Callahan’s 1989 memoir which gives this film its name (and originates from one of his most famous sketches). Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a soulful, sincere, and flawed portrait of this most uncompromising and often uncouth of illustrators. It is a film about the process of achieving sobriety, making amends, and the nature of forgiveness more than it is a meditation on art or artistry.
Early in the piece, the film deals with the defining incident in Callahan’s life, which occurred in 1972. After nearly a decade as a severe alcoholic, the twenty-one-year-old Callahan (a typically warped, addled Joaquin Phoenix) attends a party in Los Angeles where he meets fellow drunk Dexter (a lascivious Jack Black). The two leave for another party; driving Callahan’s car, Dexter crashes into a light pole. The accident leaves Callahan a quadriplegic; Dexter emerges unscathed.
Van Sant shifts from one time period to another with almost as much velocity as Callahan in his wheelchair. The film flits between the day of the accident, its immediate aftermath, Callahan’s long road to sobriety, and his attempts to grasp a pen so that he can create his macabre cartoons.