Joaquin Phoenix undergoes his newest transformation in Gus Van Sant's earnest new biopic

Don’t Fear, He Received’t Get Far On Foot (Photograph: Sundance)

To name Joaquin Phoenix considered one of our best residing shape-shifters is to do greater than acknowledge his vary. It’s additionally a great way to explain the daring physicality of his transformations—how he twists his body to accommodate the distinct corporeal presence of a scrawny cultist clinging to his sanity, a paunchy tutorial in mid-life disaster, or a lanky hipster sadsack in love together with his working system. He actually embodies every new character he performs.

Right here at Sundance, there are two totally different alternatives to marvel on the wonders Phoenix can do together with his pores and skin and bones. I wrote about considered one of them, Lynne Ramsay’s mesmerizing noir nightmare You Have been By no means Actually Right here, when it premiered at Cannes final Could; within the additional weight he carried like a weapon, in each his elevated dimension and the scary lurch of his actions (name it a lumbering grace), the actor earned an adjective I wouldn’t usually assume to use to him: intimidating. On the opposite finish of the spectrum is Don’t Fear, He Received’t Get Far On Foot (Grade: B), Gus Van Sant’s peculiar, ultra-earnest biopic in regards to the late cartoonist John Callahan. At 21, Callahan survive a automotive wreck that left most of his physique paralyzed, which signifies that Phoenix spends a lot of the film confined to a wheelchair, shifting solely his head, neck, and—stiffly, limitedly—his arms. For an actor like Phoenix, for whom mannerism and physique language are important instruments, the half presents a significant new problem, and it’s thrilling to report—by way of wordplay the self-deprecating Callahan would possibly admire—that he rises to the problem, his lowered vary of movement wanting involuntary somewhat than labored, at the very least to those eyes.

Don’t fear, Don’t Fear isn’t some tearfully inspirational tribute to Callahan’s overcome his incapacity. It’s a tearfully inspirational tribute to his overcome alcoholism. Primarily based on the artist’s memoir of the identical, which closely chronicled his battle with the bottle, the movie believes so deeply within the AA course of, in its worth and necessity and effectiveness, that it might fairly be retitled 12 Steps: The Film. (There’s a complete montage dedicated to step 9, with Callahan embarking on a somewhat literal apology tour.) The uplifting nature of this true story naturally triggers Van Sant’s pesky sentimentality, with scenes that recall the hug-it-out, therapeutic catharsis of Good Will Searching. However that is nonetheless the writer-director’s most formally attention-grabbing, emotionally involving film in a decade, nonetheless little that will actually be saying.

Van Sant, to his credit score, finds loads of methods to disguise or undercut the biodramatic conventionality of the fabric. The narrative initially unfolds in nonlinear vogue, leaping into flashbacks to Callahan’s pre-accident days, overlapping a collection of later talking engagements (a trick recycled from the filmmaker’s final biopic, Milk), and echoing the recitations and repetitions of AA by returning perpetually to important turns of phrase, like the actual manner Callahan at all times describes the mom who deserted him. (One other reoccurring gadget: the transformation of his sketches into animated interludes.) Van Sant’s script boldly omits a few of the anticipated beats, because of its pretty slim deal with the cartoonist’s struggle towards habit; it by no means will get to his movie star or his loss of life (bread and butter for many artist biopics), as a result of these issues occurred later.

The support-group conferences are the meat of the film, as Callahan bonds together with his fellow addicts, beneath the empathetic, often exasperated tough-love steerage of his sponsor (a terrific, cast-against-type Jonah Hill, rocking an actual hippie Wyatt Russell look). They haven’t any pity for him and no endurance for his self-pity, and Van Sant makes the implicit case that this perspective—this refusal to condone sufferer complexes—strongly knowledgeable Callahan’s controversial work, which was each well-known and notorious for its mordant irreverence on severe subjects, together with his personal incapacity. Don’t Fear is already falling sufferer, critically talking, to the center floor it occupies: It’s too maudlin for some tastes, too offbeat and sluggishly paced for others. However Phoenix anchors the movie to an emotional actuality, and there’s one thing to be mentioned for the way Van Sant collides his dueling affinities for cornball uplift and oddball experimentation—generally in a single scene, as when Phoenix’s Callahan confronts his mommy points by speaking to a phantom projection of his absentee father or mother.

American Animals (Photograph: Sundance)

Punching up standard content material with unconventional type is changing into an early theme of the competition, judging from day two’s large premieres. There’s a component of that, too, in American Animals (Grade: B), which finds documentarian Bart Layton relocating the true-crime fascination and unreliable point-of-views of his The Imposter to a story venture. He hasn’t even ditched the nonfiction totally: To retell the true story of 4 faculty children who plot to rob the rare-books assortment of their campus library, Layton disrupts his scripted scenes—that includes Evan Peters and Killing Of A Sacred Deer’s Barry Keoghan because the in-over-their-head ringleaders—with talking-head interviews with the actual culprits. It’s akin to what Errol Morris not too long ago completed with Wormwood, solely with the ratio of actual to recreation flipped. And Layton’s trickiness doesn’t finish there: For some time, anyway, he has enjoyable with the uncommon alternative to place the 2 modes in dialog, sticking his real-life topics within the body with the actors enjoying them, drawing consideration to the generally huge chasm separating dramatizations from the reality. The movie principally opens with a cheeky mislead, slapping a “This isn’t based mostly on a real story” disclaimer on display, earlier than instantly blotting out the “not based mostly on” to solid the veracity of the story beneath suspicion. These unfamiliar with the movie’s ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration (I’ll confess that I needed to look it up afterwards) are therefore left questioning in the event that they’re watching true crime or the imitation of it.

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Alas, that slipperiness seems to be extra of an accent than a central focus. For all its mode-bending gamesmanship, American Animals is in the end a reasonably simple heist film, albeit a classy and fascinating one. Like most of the latest movies with American of their titles, it’s additionally a form of Scorsese imitation (notice the frequent needle drops, together with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which ought to be verboten after Zodiac) with ideas on the nationwide character. On this case, at the very least, the thesis is sound sufficient, with Layton making the case that these 4 children lit their futures on fireplace out of a very generational anxiousness: the nagging suspicion, instilled by years of being advised that they might be no matter they needed, that their life path wasn’t thrilling, attention-grabbing, or important sufficient. Whether or not you purchase all that, American Animals largely works in the best way all good movies about best-laid-plans going astray do. The precise heist sequence is a tense triumph of black-comic suspense, as these children catch as much as what we all know already, plummeting by way of the holes of their plan.

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