The heart of this story is truly inspiring. It is deep down a story about the darkest corner of the human spirit, and how through faith we can overcome anything.
Van Sant is not a very flashy director. However there is a few questioning choices he made with this film. First off, the structure of the movie is very non linear, especially at the start. This creates a rather jarring experience, and it often results in lessening the impact of what is shown. The film gets more straightforward in the second half and it picks up big time.
Another thing that is odd is the manifestation of the protagonist's mother. The effect they chose to fade her face into the frame is simply bad. It just looks awful and the whole scene feels like a stain on the film. Also the film is filled with these weird zoom in shots that looks unappealing. It is something to get use to. It's not that it's a big deal, but it looks strange, and I fail to see the purpose of these zoom in and out.
Beside these few issues, Van Sant mostly lay low and let the actors act, and they do it beautifully. At this point it is not a surprise to anyone, but Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic in this. He elevates the material to tear jerking and meaningful. He just becomes the character. Between this and You Were Never Really Here, he is guaranteed to be nominated.
Jonah Hill proves again that he is a true artist with a single scene near the ending of the film. Before that he owns every scene he has, especially the first time Callahan meets him. He has this sincere goodness and nonchalance about his character. He really nails it.
Jack Black is also great in the film. At first it seems that he is just playing his usual funny dude character, but later in the film he has a great emotional scene. Although it is very short he just shows a whole new side of him.
Rooney Mara's performance is also great, but her character is somewhat problematic. When she first arrives, she is just like an angel, beautiful, caring and funny. It is just hard to believe that she actually exists in this universe. I understand that she helps greatly Callahan to keep faith, so that might be why she is so pretty, and charming and innocent, but it still feels like she is out of place in the film. Not her fault though.
Even though the first half suffered a bit from weird editing and jumping around a lot in time, the second half made up for it. It is more than a simple drama, it becomes meaningful. The pain that Callahan feels is so relatable. After watching him go through everything he did, and knowing that he truly existed, it just inspired me to be better. To conquer my own pain and torment and to just accept who I am as a person. It is not often that a film provoke such an emotional reaction out of me. Also I nearly cried twice, which is even more unusual.
Overall this is a great movie that dealt brilliantly with the theme of overcoming our pain and suffering no matter how insurmountable it seems.