A cartoonist’s battle with the bottle and a soldier’s search for redemption
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
As quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, Joaquin Phoenix zips around the streets of Portland so recklessly in his electric wheelchair that he’s sure to be breaking the speed limit… Occasionally he comes a cropper, but then Callahan always lived recklessly – more so before the car accident that left him crippled when he was also an alcohol-sodden wreck. The equally pickled driver of that car (Jack Black in a fantastic cameo) walks away with barely a scratch, and Callahan at first has no intention of giving up his serious drinking. Only after he falls in with a charismatic guru-like AA sponsor (Jonah Hill, unrecognisably blond and slim) and he develops his sardonic and decidedly un-PC cartooning talent do things start to look up. His recovery is aided by a helpful nurse who demonstrates how he can get an erection despite being paralysed, and Rooney Mara in an unusual smallish role as some sort of saint, who shows him what to do with it…
Much of Gus Van Sant’s film, easily the best of this always offbeat director’s work in years, focusses on Callahan’s alcoholism and his 12-Steps progress. Understandably so – that’s the sort of story which offers a (somewhat familiar) redemptive character arc and in-built emotional kick. Although the way Phoenix portrays that process is anything but familiar. Once again this exceptionally talented actor invests himself fearlessly and whole-heartedly in an exceptionally difficult role. At times a thankless one too, it’s not alway easy to identify with such a self-destructive and prickly character. He’s thoroughly convincing though, even oddly inspiring, and we are never not completely invested in his personal transformation. As good as Phoenix is, he gets quite a run for his money by Hill – who is nothing short of a revelation as a gay, rich and troubled benefactor.
It’s a pity more attention wasn’t paid to Callahan’s creative talent and the role it played too. Perhaps even the idiosyncratic Van Sant was nervous about focusing too much on that – Callahan’s work (he died in 2010) wasn’t without its detractors – often by minority groups, including the disabled themselves, who didn’t appreciate its button-pushing, mocking tone. It was easily misunderstood, and today he would probably have found himself in trouble. There’s one scene in a pub which shows a female bartender offended by one of his cartoons depicting a man being scared by a sign saying “Warning: This premises protected by lesbians.” A group of drinkers deconstruct the drawing – it’s published in Penthouse, they explain, a stroke mag which by definition is only purchased by men who are terrified of the power of women… The joke is on the reader, not same-sex attracted women, though the bartender remains poker-faced. Cut to twenty five years later and she would have been joining Twitter campaigns calling for him to be sacked, prosecuted by the Human Rights Commission, and all the publications he was in burned. M from Sept 27. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★
Skirting a line somewhere between documentary and fiction, it takes little while to work exactly what writer/director Benjamin Gilmour’s film really is. It opens with night-vision footage of what looks like a real military strike by Australian troops somewhere in Afghanistan, and the scene ends when one of the soldiers, Mike (Sam Smith) removes his goggles and surveys the carnage. At least one bystander is dead, but then the film abruptly jumps three years. Mike, now a civilian, has returned to Afghanistan with wads of cash taped to his body, and a half-assed plan to make amends and apologise to the family of the man he killed.
Even for something with a strong anti-war message (and what war film nowadays doesn’t tell us that war is both bad and mad?) that’s a bat-shit crazy idea for a film. Mike’s local Kabul fixer sure thinks he’s crazy, but somehow Mike convinces a taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him to Kandahar. Instead the driver takes him to a well-known tourist hang-out – a huge barren lake and the two of them camp, share food and songs, and lark about for a while in a pink flamingo pedal boat – one of the film’s many strange and haunting scenes. Nearer Kandahar the cab is ambushed by bandits and Mike is taken captive. Eventually, he convinces his surprisingly honourable Taliban captors (not interested in his money? Really?) of the nobility of his mission, and they take him to the wreckage of the village his unit destroyed. There he puts his life in the hands of the “Jirga” – a community court of elders.
Is this for real? Did any of it actually happen? The film’s hand-held documentary-style, its often jerky and pixelated images, and deliberative tactic of keeping us at an emotional distance is deceptive – this is a work of fiction. A never less than involving one, Jirga is certainly an intriguing and innovative piece of filmmaking with some stunning footage from a part of the world most of us know nothing about – no surprise that it was the only Australian film to make it into Sydney Film Festival’s official competition this year. We’re not let into Mike’s internal life though, or given any sense of his history or the trauma that must have drawn him to this bizarre course of action. In the great canon of anti-war films, Jirga is a worthy addition. Despite its genuine moments of tension, other-worldly strangeness and admirable message, it’s still a hard film to get a handle on. Five stars for intent, three for the actual result. M from Sept 27, at Dendy Newtown. ★★★★
Also opening this week
Reviews – Russell Edwards