Gus Van Sant has a film at Sundance this year, a biographical film about cartoonist John Callahan. The film, which the director also wrote based on Callahan’s autobiography, explores the artist’s alcoholism that led to the car accident that left most of his body paralyzed.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” features several notable performances, and one truly great one. As Callahan, Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates again his ability to immerse himself into a role and bring out the subtlest pieces of his characters’ humanity.
But the film also strikes a wrong chord after the igniting of the #MeToo and #TimesUp dialogue, which has brought light and attention not only to sexual assault and harassment, but to the invisibility of women in our patriarchal culture, and to the silence of their voices.
“Don’t Worry” has a nonchalance about making blunt sexual advances toward those in professional settings — at one point, a female therapist suggests that Callahan ask a nameless nurse to “sit on your face,” which he does, and she agrees, in a scene of sexuality played for laughs.
Later, two men (one gay), discuss a male lawn worker in a way that assumes his sexual availability.
These are not egregious examples — in the first case, the therapist suggests he merely ask the nurse to sit on his face, and see what she says. But it seems to me there are more polite ways of initiating a potentially sexual or romantic relationship (which is a generous description of Callahan’s exchange with the anonymous, mostly silent nurse).
To a larger point, more particularly relevant for this review, these examples get at illustrating the overall patriarchal assumptions of the film, the most apparent of which is the character of Annu, played by Rooney Mara.
Mara is a fine actress, someone who has filled performances with complexity and insight, and her talents are — this is a familiar complaint, isn’t it? — totally wasted by the material. Her character is written as a prop, someone whose first line is “you’re so handsome,” which sadly sums up her depth as a person apart from Callahan’s fantasies and hopes.
People in real life lambasted Callahan’s work as “thinly drawn” and “vulgar” (points I probably disagree with), but that’s exactly how I would describe Van Sant’s treatment of Annu, as well as other women in the film.
When people complain about more stories about white men, it is not just a political argument, it’s an artistic one. When a film’s perspective is so limited that it isn’t curious about or generous toward a variety of perspectives, even its strong primary perspective falls flat, because it seems to float in a world that doesn’t matter as much as the protagonist does.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
Running time: 1 hour, 53 min
Festival Program: Premieres