WALK THE LINE
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne
MPAA Rating: (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)
Running Time: 2:16
Release Date: 11/18/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
Johnny Cash and June Carter married in 1968. They remained married for thirty-five years, and in May of 2003, June passed away. Four months later in September, Cash passed on. It's the kind of situation that can really make you take a second and third thought about the concept of soul-mates. Walk the Line is less a look at Cash's career than it is a love story with The Man in Black's craft and vocational progress as the backdrop. In that way, the movie bypasses the typical thematic route of biopics about artists, but structurally, this is all familiar territory, covering Cash's roots and hitting each momentous event until his marriage. With such a workman-like construction, the romance loses a lot of its potential emotional impact, and by pushing it into the background, the exploration of Cash's extraordinary career comes out lacking as well. Writer-director James Mangold (who wrote the screenplay with Gill Dennis based on two Cash autobiographies) clearly has the best intentions, and he manages to elicit two phenomenal performances out of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the destined duo. In the end, though, his overall effort feels decidedly underwhelming, although the performances superbly serve their subjects on multiple levels.
The film opens with young John R. Cash (Ridge Canipe) on his family farm in Arkansas. One day his older brother Jack (Lucas Till) tells John to go off fishing ahead of him while he finishes work on a circular saw. Later that day, the boys' father Ray (Robert Patrick) finds his younger son walking home and asks where he was. Arriving at home, he finds his brother fatally wounded. His father tells the young John flat out that God took the wrong son. Years later, Cash (now Phoenix) has enlisted in the Air Force and is stationed in Germany. There, he buys a guitar, learns to play, begins writing songs, keeps up on the gossip of his famous childhood crush Carter (Witherspoon), and convinces Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) to marry him when he comes back home. The home life is fine at the beginning, but Cash wants more, enlisting the help of two mechanics to play alongside him and gaining audition with Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) of Sun Records. Phillips is rough but honest, telling him no one wants to hear low-rent versions of gospel standards and pushing him into finding something of his own—something Phillips immediately jumps on to record.
The result puts Cash on tour with the likes of Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), and Carter, with whom Cash is instantly smitten. They get tangled up back stage and talk at a diner after the show. He briefly tells her about his brother; she listens. She is attentive and encouraging, the opposite of his wife, who complains about his lack of time at home and the lusty contents of letters from female fans. The bond between Cash and Carter is obvious from the beginning, but she is also in a failing marriage (the first). When she finally gets divorced, Cash tries to make a move, but Carter is worried about causing an even bigger publicity nightmare by having an affair with a married man (a woman in a grocery store accosts her committing a sin as serious as divorce). Cash moves on to affairs with random women at concerts and eventually becomes a heavy drinker and addicted to pills. Interspersed through all of this are performances in which the unspoken but palpable bond between Cash and Carter finds an outlet. She will eventually write his most famous song "Ring of Fire" about their ups and downs during this period and will be the only person who stands by him as he goes through remission.
What keeps her at a safe distance—and what makes Witherspoon's portrayal of her so wise—is her recognition of Cash as a man still in search of himself. She has gone through two failed marriages by the end of the story and has asserted herself as a thoroughly independent woman, which ultimately begs the question: What does she see in him? It's clear what he sees and needs from her in the way she stays by his side through and in spite of his darkest moments, and since this is a Cash biography, the romance is only seen from one side. Because of the material, it must be that way, but ultimately, the romance loses its emotional weight as a result. The portrait of Cash is expertly crafted by Phoenix, who (along with Witherspoon) does his own singing and performing. If not for knowledge beforehand, one could swear Cash's voice was dubbed on the soundtrack, but Phoenix's singing is spot-on, capturing Cash's sometimes amused, always determined basso. More importantly, though, he encapsulates Cash's silent torment, seeing Cash as a man overwhelmed by external circumstances and lacking the internal strength to save himself. Thus Witherspoon's Carter, flighty on stage but sensible behind the scenes, is his obvious salvation.
It would be fascinating to see a companion piece to the movie that witnesses these events from Carter's perspective to help flesh out their relationship. As it is on its own, Walk the Line ends up being not quite the Johnny Cash story and not quite the Johnny Cash/June Carter story. The movie lies somewhere in the unexplored, underdeveloped middle—a basic introduction for both of those stories.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.