Death by (Mis)adventure: On Gus Van Sant and “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Thomas Powers, Writer for The Scoop

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One of Gus Van Sant’s most admirable traits as a filmmaker is the variety of his output. His work is one of the best examples of the famous artistic adage: “one for me, one for them” (meaning that the artist makes one true artistic work for every schmaltzy commercial one). Where Van Sant diverges from his contemporaries is that the movies he makes for himself are just as likely to be good as the movies he makes “for them”. By embracing the commercial aspect of the film industry, Van Sant puts an accessible face onto complex themes and filmmaking techniques.


Early in his career, Van Sant made numerous films that took the stance that death was cruel and above human control. This most famously includes the appropriately named “Death Trilogy”.


Among these is Elephant (2003), a Van Sant film about the Columbine massacre. Van Sant posits that the students’ deaths were not as neatly explainable as the media made them out to be. The film has a haunting spiritual quality, frequently featuring the students looking to the sky with confused expressions and walking into their fates as scripted.


The “Death Trilogy” is bookended by Gerry (2002), the tale of two men getting lost during a Death Valley hike and Last Days (2005), a chronicle of the time leading up to the suicide of Kurt Cobain. You would think that an entire trilogy of death-focused movies would be enough for one director, but alas, Van Sant has been working with this subject matter all throughout his career. In addition to the “Death Trilogy”, Van Sant directed a grisly “Tell-Tale Heart”-like story of murder by skateboard in Paranoid Park (2007) and a tabloid story of a student-teacher relationship turned murder plot in To Die For (1995). Although it is hard to put in words, all of these films have a sort of chilling, haunted sensation to them, as if their characters are walking ghosts, with the constraints of the narrative tying them to their fates.


Some of Van Sant’s recent works have also dealt with themes of mortality, although Van Sant seems to have changed his disposition over the course of his career. The clearest turning point in Van Sant’s career is Milk (2008), an Academy Award-winning film about the rise of politician Harvey Milk and the time leading up to his assassination. Milk is the clearest turning point in Van Sant’s portrayal of death because it maintains some of the ghostly quality of his previous death movies, but features an emerging sense of optimism. Harvey being sacrificed is tragic, but Van Sant seems to take the sentiment that this sacrifice is a positive thing. The film is a jubilant celebration of Harvey’s life and accomplishments as well as an acknowledgement of the tragedy in his death.


The next chapter in Van Sant’s career-long death saga is The Sea of Trees, the most obvious direct reflection on the Death Trilogy in Van Sant’s filmography. The film follows a man who travels to Japan to commit suicide, but ends up finding new meaning in his life after saving the life of another suicidal man. The film was a critical and commercial disaster, and was criticized for being corny, even garnering comparisons to Hallmark movies. For those familiar with the context of Van Sant’s earlier work, The Sea of Trees was thematically refreshing. It is fulfilling to see Van Sant change his disposition and shift his prior nihilism to a love of life.


With his most recent release, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Van Sant continues his contextualization of his earlier work with a more positive spin on the familiar themes of mortality and emotional rebirth.


The film centers on John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who finds new meaning in his life after becoming paraplegic by way of a drunk driving accident. Prior to and for a short time following this accident, Callahan was rude, drank at an incredible rate and objectified women. After the accident, the majority of the film follows Callahan through his twelve-step process of recovery with an alcoholism support group, his romance with a nurse (Rooney Mara) and his blossoming career as a cartoonist.


The most important catalyst to Callahan’s betterment is the leader of his alcoholism support group, Donnie Green (Jonah Hill). Green is a wealthy, eccentric, God-fearing man with a quick wit and a good heart. From the very start he sees the potential in Callahan, and although Callahan’s pride initially prevents any kind of growth during their group AA-like meetings, Green is able to connect with Callahan with the right balance of humor and sincerity. Slowly but surely, Callahan’s prideful exterior wears away and Green is able to heal not only Callahan’s addiction but also some of his emotional issues.


It is refreshing to see Van Sant portray therapy with such reverence and nuance, as he gave therapy a somewhat oversimplified and caricatured depiction in his most famous film Good Will Hunting (1997). Green is a very effective therapist because he is able to personalize his treatment to resonate with Callahan while also maintaining his modus operandi; because Green befriended Callahan and earned his trust, it became easier for Callahan to trust Green and face challenges with him.


In the midst of Callahan’s growth, he begins cartooning as an outlet for his off-color sense of humor and difficulty with expression. His drawing style is rather simplistic, and his comics are mostly absurd, offensive, one-panel pieces. One of the featured cartoons depicts two Klansmen in uniform. One says to the other: “Don’t you love it when they’re still warm from the dryer?” In a true artistic sense, Callahan can hardly wait to show people his comics and get as much feedback from the public as possible. He rides around in his wheelchair in the street showing strangers, he shows his librarian, he shows waitresses. Some laugh and some are offended, and in a true artistic sense, Callahan cherishes any response that is not apathy.


Although Callahan escapes death in a car accident, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is certainly a continuation of Van Sant’s ruminations on mortality. The film is a natural progression from Van Sant’s’ prior work, The Sea of Trees, as Van Sant continues to display his increasing sentiment of optimism. In spite of the tragedy in Callahan’s life, he was able to find more fulfillment in his life after becoming a paraplegic than he had beforehand. Although this concept sounds rather trite, Van Sant carries out his direction with enough heart to carry Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot well beyond the award-bait that many expected it to be.


Van Sant has always been able to maintain his artistic integrity in spite of difficult circumstances. He took a risk when making Last Days, as he feared angering Cobain’s family and devoted fans. When making Elephant, Van Sant was able to sift through the controversies and sensitivity surrounding Columbine to make a balanced and thoughtful expression of beauty, despair and nihilism. Despite the criticisms of The Sea of Trees, Van Sant was able to make the film that he wanted with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.


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