John Callahan

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” a film based on the memoir of cartoonist, troublemaker, and disability icon John Callahan, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19. It’s scheduled to open in theaters nationwide on May 11.

Callahan, who died in 2010, was a major force in American satire. In the late ’90s, his often hilarious, often controversial cartoons were syndicated in over 200 U.S. newspapers, an impressive feat, considering the number of reader objections they received. In its obituary, the New York Times described Callahan as, “a quadriplegic, alcoholic cartoonist whose work in newspapers and magazines made irreverent, impolitic sport of people with disabilities and diseases and those who would pity and condescend to them.”

Perhaps Callahan’s most famous cartoon, from which both the film and his first memoir get their name, shows an empty wheelchair in the desert that has been come upon by a posse on horseback, one of whom says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”

Empty wheelchair in the desert

The film was directed by Gus Van Sant, whose work has received both mainstream and indie acclaim, including Good Will Hunting and My Own Private Idaho, among others. Both Van Sant and Callahan lived in Portland, Oregon, and Van Sant has been trying to get this movie made for a few decades now. He originally had Robin Williams signed on to play Callahan, while Callahan was still alive.

In a move that is sure to cause controversy within the disability community, Callahan, who had C5-6 quadriplegia as result of a car accident, is played by the nondisabled Joaquin Phoenix. Van Sant, aware of the venom casting a nondisabled actor to play a character with a disability can unleash, argued for his choice at the Sundance Indiewire Studio, as reported on their website:

“This often comes up with all kinds of lead roles — who are the people playing the lead roles, do they have anything in common with the role itself?” Van Sant said. “I definitely would have used a particular person that was quadriplegic if they were the right actor,” he added, just as composer Danny Elfman chimed in: “A significant part of the story is before the incident, so to do that would have meant completely changing the story, because that’s a major part of the story — before and after the accident.”

It’s true that those looking for a full biopic treatment of Callahan, or even an in-depth accounting of his life with a disability will be disappointed. The film focuses narrowly on Callahan’s battle with and recovery from alcoholism, both before and after his accident.

Van Sant also argued that Callahan himself wouldn’t have wanted an actor with a disability to play him: “Honestly, if I’d suggested it to John, he would have said, ‘Fuck no.’ Because he wanted the most famous person in the world to play him, which was Robin Williams — he couldn’t wait.”

The film is receiving generally positive, if sometimes ableist reviews. View the trailer below.