John Callahan could be easily described as a slacker, he can’t hold a job, all he does is drink and is forever in search of the next party, just so he can keep the buzz going that tiny bit longer. Life, however, has another plan for Callahan as it takes a dramatic turn when he is involved in car crash and almost left for dead. You would think that one would change their ways; unfortunately, the desire for alcohol only gets stronger. At some point rock bottom must be met and begrudgingly Callahan enters into treatment. With the support of his girlfriend (Mara) and taken under the wing of captivating sponsor (Hill), its here that Callahan discovers his gift for drawing. With his dark humor, taboo subjects and politically incorrect observations, John Callahan’s shaky and simplistic cartooning style would end up inspiring many, but offended the sensibilities of many more.
Pheonix, as the quadriplegic Callahan is quite a marvel to watch. As an actor, Pheonix is well known for throwing so much of his soul into the characters he embodies, you almost forget where he begins and they end. Playing a character whose movements are limited, would have been quite constraining for most actors, not for Phoenix. He plays the role with such conviction, twisting his body to mirror Callahans’s own crumpled frame. Its amazing how much can be said through such little movement.
Roony Mara plays Annu, Callahan’s physiotherapist turned girlfriend. I found Mara’s performance a little disappointing, as her character plays like a ghost, present, but never really there. It is Jonah Hill that was truly a stand out for me. Playing Callahans’s AA sponsor Donnie, this new age “gay Jesus” becomes a savior to his gang full of misfit devotees (with surprising and amusing cameos from Musicians, Beth ditto as an extroverted red neck hick and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as a ex-suburban housewife who addition to vallium rock bottomed when she found herself roaming the neighborhood naked). Jack Black is Dexter; the self-proclaimed Wildman who sent Callahan’s life crashing (literally) is typically Jack Black-ish (irritating, loud and frantic) when we first meet him, but when Callahan tracks him down for his ninth step part (forgiveness) we find a man who has suffered and battled his own demons, his biggest being remorse.
For me the draw card was Gus Van Sant himself. I’ve been a long time fan of his going on 26 years now, with such films as Drug Store Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Psycho and Milk, just to name a few. There has always been this whimsical, surreal, art house element almost boarding upon dream like. Van Sant was able to voice his opinions on addiction, how marginalized subcultures should be represented and the concept of family whether it be found, formed or born into (the AA group itself becomes his found family) when implemented here it just seems to miss the mark, coming across as corny and melodramatic. One highlight to Van Sant’s directorial decisions was to animate Callahan’s sketches using them as interludes throughout the film.
There is no real chronological order to the events that take place in the film as we constantly shift from “present” to past, what however does propel us forward through the film is witnessing Callahan’s road to recovery through the 12-step program. This film however unlike most films that tackle the subject of addiction is about the recovery (of mind and body) and not the downward spiral, which led one to it.
The title got its name from a cartoon drawn by Callahan depicting an overturned wheel chair in the desert, with a house mounted sheriff assuring his deputies not to worry, that the defendant “ He won’t get far on foot”. I feel like this was true for John Callahan, who felt much like that man dragging himself through the heat. Life may have been hell at times, but at least he was moving through it.