A Recovered Life

By Tim Winterstein

So I’ve just seen my favorite movie of the year. I’m not taking credit for noticing this, though. That goes to my friend Nick, who recommended to me Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. Maybe we just agree that Joaquin Phoenix plays all the parts from now on, eh? (Except maybe Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene. I’ll withhold judgment for now.) He is brilliant, and the rest of the cast is nearly perfect. I barely recognized Jonah Hill. Jack Black does Jack Black. And this might be the first movie I’ve seen where Rooney Mara is happy at the end.

I say it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, but that’s sort of subjective. A lot depends on when you see a movie and what you saw right before it. As I watch films for the Newport Beach Film Festival, my “yes” or “no” to a film is almost completely dependent on what I’ve been watching. If I see a lot of bad films, and then there’s a mediocre one, I’m inclined to say yes, simply based on the ones I saw before it. If I see a lot of solid films, and see a mediocre one, it’s likely going to get a no. (But this is why NBFF tries to get five sets of eyes on every film: so that an individual’s contextual decision is mitigated.)

Anyway, all of that to say that Don’t Worry… hit me at the right time. I was moved by pity and sympathy for John Callahan, as he is forced through stages of grief, acceptance, self-awareness, and everything that AA allows him to acknowledge about his own actions and responsibility for them. It’s more than just a movie about alcoholism, though. The layers of the story are compounded by the hole left by an unknown mother. At multiple and significant points in the film, he repeats his stock line about knowing only three things about his mother: that she was Irish-American, that she had red hair, and that she was a school teacher. And—oh, yeah—that she didn’t want him. Four things.

I don’t know how to describe the pathos of the film other than to say that I was fully in every scene with every character. (Except, maybe, Carrie Brownstein. And that’s not her fault; it’s just that I expect Portlandia now when I see her, and so I expected sardonic comments and Fred Arnisen slipping into the frame, when she mostly plays it straight.)

Alcoholism is not something I can relate to directly. It doesn’t run in my family, and I only know that sort of addiction from a distance. But the reality of having to fight such an addiction every day until you die—that, on the other hand, is a pretty good metaphor for the struggle against the flesh that Paul describes, especially in Romans 7.

As the sponsor for the AA group that John joins, Donnie is the compass, constantly reorienting his “piglets” toward true north (well, AA’s version, at least). But he’s flawed and broken himself. You know he’s speaking from experience when, late in the movie, he tells John (who’s a little disappointed that he experiences no major epiphany of healing), “This is the big moment. There’s no lightning bolt that shoots you and cures all your sh*t. There are discoveries and epiphanies and moments of clarity. But this doesn’t just go away. You have to wrestle with this sh*t every day. Some of that pain will remain there forever. Some of that shame will remain there forever. But you have to fight with it, or you’ll f***ing die.”

Sin leaves its scars. Shame and guilt sneak up on us as we are forced to examine ourselves, as we’re forced to take responsibility for actions that we’d rather not face. But all those little deaths of humiliation (in Christian terms, dying and rising as baptized people) might keep us from dying the final death of pride, as we grasp at the straws of whatever we call “our” lives. Those who keep their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for the sake of Christ and the Gospel will keep them. I don’t know if John Callahan was a Christian (he died in 2010), but he certainly knew what it was like to have one life be killed off in an instant and have to live day after day according to another life. And eventually he learned that that was the only life he had. The only thing to do, then, is to live that life and fight every day against the pain and the shame, always dependent.

For the Christian, it’s learning that we are absolutely dependent, first upon God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us. But it’s also dependence upon other people. We do not live unto ourselves, unless we want to die by ourselves.

Thanks, Gus Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix, for bringing this to life, and thanks to Nick for the recommendation.