Walk the Line
Director : James Mangold
Screenplay : Gill Dennis & James Mangold (based on the books The Man in Black by Johnny Cash and Cash An Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash), Reese Witherspoon (June Carter), Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Cash), Robert Patrick (Ray Cash), Dallas Roberts (Sam Phillips), Dan John Miller (Luther Perkins), Larry Bagby (Marshall Grant), Shelby Lynne (Carrie Cash), Tyler Hilton (Elvis Presley), Waylon Malloy Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis), Shooter Jennings (Waylon Jennings), Sandra Ellis Lafferty (Maybelle Carter)
From a distance, Walk the Line, which traces the life of country/rock legend Johnny Cash, is a standard-issue biopic that follows a tried-and-true formula about a deprived rural kid who finds his voice and makes it to the top of the music industry, battling drugs and inner demons along the way. It delivers just the right doses of sentimentality, morality, and can-do pluck dressed up in picture-perfect period drag.
Yet, the movie itself is far better than its outline would suggest. Part of this is due to a pair of outstanding performances by Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, his muse and object of romantic desire who eventually becomes his guardian angel and source of redemption. Phoenix digs deep into Cash’s well of troubles and conflicts, portraying him as a man of great fallibility and passion whose greatness lies in his direct approach to his life and music. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s outstanding performance as Truman Capote in Capote, Phoenix nails the details of Cash’s heavy-bass voice (he also did his own singing) and mannerisms without letting his performance rest at the level of mere mimicry. Instead, he conveys a sense of gravity, humanity, and, most of all, sheer determination, all of which draws us into sympathy with his character. Weighted down by the grisly childhood death of a saintly older brother and a disapproving father (Robert Patrick), not to mention a debilitating addiction to pills, Cash struggled even when times were supposedly “good.”
Walk the Line also benefits greatly from the decision by director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted), who cowrote the screenplay with Gill Dennis from two autobiographical works by Cash, to center the story around the decade-long romantic dance between Cash and June Carter, who was already an established country star when Cash was still in the Air Force dreaming about becoming a singer. When they first meet on a tour in the mid-1950s that also featured Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash is immediately smitten. Unfortunately, both he and June are already married to other people. Cash’s wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), a high-school sweetheart, isn’t portrayed in a particularly flattering light; beholden to her daddy and never supportive of Cash’s musical dreams, she is dead weight from the very beginning, which makes it much easier to accept Cash’s eventual adultery.
Much of the film takes place on-stage, which Mangold uses to chart Johnny and June’s relationship. They were so good on stage together that many people simply assumed they were together off-stage, and Mangold plays with that dichotomy, using their stage relationship as a kind of dream projection of what they both really want, but can’t have. The stage also becomes the place where their tensions and troubles are aired, such as the scene where Cash coaxes June on stage to sing with him and then insists that they sing a song she penned with her ex-husband, something with which she feels deeply uncomfortable.
Like last year’s Ray, a film to which it will inevitably be compared, Walk the Line is a warts-and-all portrait of a music legend that still manages to paint a vision of transcendence. Cash’s drug addiction, ego trips, and sometimes maddening behavior don’t bring his character down, but rather elevate him to the stature of hero for having overcome them. In a strange way, such films serve the same icon-cementing function of the old Hollywood biopics that knowingly skirted any hint of negativity in depicting the great men of the past. Cash may struggle through the hard times, strung out and isolated in drug-addled despair, but the arc of the story tells the audience that it is merely a temporary setback, one that will eventually be overcome.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 20th Century Fox