Walk the Line (PG-13)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
“Honest, Accurate Portrait of the Man in Black”
Following up last year’s smash-hit biopic, Ray, would be a daunting task for any movie, but Walk the Line, the tumultuous story of Johnny Cash’s passions and pitfalls, holds its own with remarkable performances and a screenplay that exudes authenticity thanks to its source material—Cash’s autobiography—and input from son and co-producer, John Carter Cash. Ray is referenced here because there are striking similarities between both movies, similarities that beg a closer examination.
Both Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were artists who not only rose to the highest pinnacle of the music industry, but also redefined their respective genres with charisma, innovation and sheer honesty born of tragedy. Both men battled infidelity on the road and both struggled with their addiction to drugs. Most strikingly, however, is that both men shared the same traumatic childhood event—through inaction, both Charles and Cash lost their brother to a senseless accident. It could be argued that the guilt and self-recrimination they experienced drove both men to drugs as a way of sublimating their emotional pain.
The events of Johnny Cash’s life certainly are powerful and dramatic, but the script is constrained by the need for veracity: what the story gains in authenticity, it looses in spontaneity, especially for those already familiar with the ups and downs of Cash’s career. In that regard, the movie would be easy to forget if not for the stellar performances delivered by the cast in general and the leads in specific. Reece Witherspoon is amazing as June Carter and Joaquin Phoenix is astounding as Cash—both portrayals are made all the more extraordinary by the fact that both actors did their own singing for the movie (like in Ray, musical interludes form the timeline and structure of the story and are enjoyable and memorable excursions from the film’s dramatic episodes). Witherspoon’s experience with playing upbeat debutantes really serves her well here, and Phoenix’s dramatic training on Gladiator and the Shyamalan films has clearly paid dividends in what is arguably the stand-out performance of the year.
Though his acting is fine, I just can’t bring myself to accept Robert Patrick as Johnny’s father, Ray Cash. About a year ago, I saw Patrick and Phoenix together in Ladder 49, and though Patrick is clearly the older of the two, he seems more like an older brother or uncle to Phoenix than a father figure. Further, I don’t feel the make-up department did a very good job of aging Patrick, especially in the final scene.
Stand-out scenes are plentiful in the movie and are certainly not limited to these: Cash auditioning with a local record producer who challenges Johnny to write songs that can change people’s lives, Cash’s ongoing struggle with substances climaxing with his meltdown and collapse on stage, Carter being verbally pummeled in a general store by a local woman who disapproves of her recent divorce, Cash’s manic attempt to free a brand new tractor from a mud pit only to land it and him in a nearby lake, Cash’s legendary concert at Folsom Prison where he makes a crack about the yellow water, and any scene that has the phrase “Where were you?” in it.
Director James Mangold (Identity) does an adequate, if not excellent, job with the paint-by-numbers script—Cash walking down the same dusty road as a boy and later as a man is a nice touch—but one wonders what the movie could have been with a more established/renowned auteur at the helm. The film runs a bit too long—the coda is unnecessary other than to show a mending relationship between Cash and his father. Mangold would have done better to freeze-frame the embrace between Cash and Carter—after Cash finally wears Carter down and she agrees to marry him in front of a live audience—and include a line about Cash’s reconciliation with his father in the concluding footnotes.
Walk the Line should receive numerous Oscar nods: besides excellent performances, the movie is inspirational in its offering of hope to anyone who, like Cash, has made some poor choices in life (who among us is immune to this condition?). Johnny Cash may have hurt himself and others in his lifetime, but he also found redemption in his later years and will be remembered for his humanness and musical brilliance for decades, and hopefully centuries, to come. Who said good guys never wear black?