John Callahan was born in 1951, started drinking regularly around 1964, was a passenger in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic in 1972, joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1978, and died in 2010. Somewhere in there, probably in his high school days, he started drawing. Much later in life, after he began the AA 12-step program, his drawing talent kicked in, taking the shape of offbeat and acerbic cartoons, got him published, and made him famous. But his whole life was a very bumpy ride.

Gus Van Sant’s telling of the story keeps viewers enthralled by the sheer audacity of the film’s structure – it’s all over the place in flashbacks and flashes forward, and it doesn’t care much about chronology – and by the powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan and the initially unrecognizable Jonah Hill as Donnie, his bearded, long-haired, laidback and charismatic AA sponsor.

The film’s longwinded title comes from Callahan’s autobiography, the title of which he lifted from one of those cartoons that depicted a sheriff and his posse looking at an overturned wheelchair, and the sheriff saying that line.

Van Sant could have chosen so many places to start, but he went with an AA meeting, where Callahan was one of six members who would sit around, under the guidance of Donnie, telling their own stories.

“The last day I walked, I woke up without a hangover,” says Callahan to them. Then, before it’s made clear just how complex the film is going to be, he’s repeating the same line, with the same inflections, to a different group of people – from a stage, where they’ve come to hear him lecture or, more appropriately, give a sort of spoken word concert.

Then the film flashes to that last day, when he woke up without the hangover, bought a pint of whatever, and drank it on the sly – he was always doing his drinking in secret. In ensuing flashbacks to the story he’s telling, Callahan meets a man named Dexter (Jack Black) at a party where they both get to drinking to excess and taking the party to the streets.

We’re regularly reminded that the meeting with Dexter and the events that followed it – which included a stranger saying to them, “You guys are in no condition to drive,” just as they pile into Callahan’s VW bug, with Dexter behind the wheel – were on that last day of walking.

For those who are squeamish about violence in movies, the good news is that Van Sant never shows the accident. But there are certainly some troubling emotional scenes in its aftermath, including Phoenix’s spot-on delivery of dialogue and accompanying facial expressions upon waking in a hospital and learning what’s happened to him.

Yet even with the grueling sections, there are scenes where the funny stuff wins out. That comes in part from some of the cartoon panels, some of which have been animated here, as well as from some self-deprecatory dialogue and, most unusually, from scenes in which Callahan is seen zipping along sidewalks and across streets in his electric wheelchair. Why that’s funny is unclear, but repetitions of it made me laugh.

Other stories include how he manages to draw (he has limited finger control, but good wrists), his search for his birth mother (which could have been skipped), and the development of his romantic relationship with the nearly angelic Annu (Rooney Mara).

It all keeps jumping back to the AA meetings, where bits of backgrounds from the other group members are told, and to revelations of the assistance from and friendship with Donnie. Moods range from uplifting to unbearably sad to funny, all of it riveting. The movie tells of Callahan’s journey from a man living a self-destructive lifestyle to someone who finds success. Some will see it as the story of a tortured soul, while others will say it’s about the triumph of the spirit. The truth is it’s really both.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT

Written and directed by Gus Van Sant

With Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black

Rated R