By John H. Foote
Joaquin Phoenix is having one of those dream years for an actor, everything he does is golden. Earlier in the year he gave a superb, haunted performance in You Were Never Really Here (2017) portraying a brutal hit man sent to rescue a young girl being held in a sex ring. His weapon of choice is not a gun or knife, but a hammer, which just seeing is frightening. Though woefully underseen due to the shakeup at The Weinstein Company, his performance as Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene (2018) earned strong reviews. Later this year he will be seen in the much anticipated western The Sisters Brothers opposite John C. Reilly, and he is brilliant in this new film from director Gus Van Sant.
Working with Van Sant for the first time since To Die For (1995) which drew him great acclaim, he portrays John Callahan, a famous cartoonist, who turned a terrible disability into art, enraging many, but it remains a tremendous act of courage. The film opens with Callahan in a wheelchair, recounting to a support group the events that led him into a terrible car accident that left him paralyzed, his legs useless, able to use one hand to operate his chair, which he does at crazy speeds.
Though it takes some time for Callahan to adjust to his limitations, he does, and finds solace and his voice in vicious cartoons which are bitterly funny, often offensive, but deeply funny if read right. It seems ironic that Callahan finds a great for life after being paralyzed, a passion reflected in his art.
Though one might expect the film to be something of a downer, it never is, Phoenix does not allow it to be happen. His Callahan is bursting with not only life, but the life force, waking each day with purpose. The role was supposed to be portrayed by Robin Williams, but after seeing it I cannot imagine anyone else in the part, Phoenix inhabits the character in every way, he owns it.
The film belongs to Phoenix, as The Master (2012) belonged to him, and he is brilliant throughout, capturing the sadness of a man who has been through a lot and now is given even more heartache to deal with. It is a masterful turn from one of our finest actors.
Jonah Hill is a comic delight as a very fey, very rich man who holds his own support meetings, offering life advice to the group who show up to discuss and vent about their lives. Jack Black is very good as the driver of the car that left Callahan broken for life, but as good as they are, and Hill is Oscar worthy good, the film belongs to Phoenix.
Gus Van Sant has very quietly worked in the industry for years now, earning two Oscar nominations for Best Director, for Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008), his masterpiece. Just once did he misstep, with the remake of Psycho (1998) in which he decided to make the film a shot for shot remake of the Hitchcock classic. Even he is ashamed of the film. His films are often offbeat, unique films about people from diverse walks of life, and he has a gift for bringing out great work from his actors. Even when working with unknowns as he did with Elephant (2004), his homage to Columbine, the actors are exquisite.
Phoenix is bound to get nominated for something this year, he deserves it. Here is hoping it is for this film because there is no trace of the actor, just Callahan. Really remarkable, and somehow bursting with life.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.