A Reel View: Walk the Line

A Reel View
Walk the Line

When I spoke to Roger Ebert shortly before first seeing Walk the Line, he remarked that he knew almost all of Johnny Cash's songs by heart. I cannot make the same claim. I'm familiar with a few of them--mostly those that got radio play--but many of the titles in his catalogue are unknown to me. That didn't impinge upon my ability to enjoy Walk the Line, but the statement is necessary to explain my background. Cash devotees may have a different reaction to this picture. In fact, although I liked it, my bet is that they will love it.
Inevitably, Walk the Line will be compared to last year's Ray. It's understandable. Both are high profile motion pictures about major recording stars who recently died (Cash passed away in 2003, four months after the death of his wife). The kind of music is different, but there are similar plot elements, chief among which are marital infidelity and drug use. Walk the Line is a better film. It's put together with more elegance, the director has more control over the trajectory, it's not boring (Ray has a tendency to drag), and it feels more like a straightforward account instead of hero-worship. Ray did more whitewashing and fictionalization than Walk the Line. Plus, this movie has a driving plotline that Ray lacked--a love story. To me, that's what elevates this film.
Walk the Line opens in 1944 Dyess, Arkansas, where it introduces us to a 12-year-old Johnny Cash, and depicts one of the key events in his early life. The film then skips forward to Landsberg, Germany in 1952 (with Joaquin Phoenix taking over the part of Cash) and Memphis in 1955. While there, living with his wife, Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin), and young daughter, he starts a band: Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. After a successful audition with a record producer, Johnny finds himself on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). His music elevates him to stardom, but drug use (uppers) and alcohol abuse threaten to drag him down. They also impede a possible romance with June, the love of his life, even after Viv has left him. The film continues Cash's story into the late 1960s, including scenes from the famous Fulsom Prison concert, and ends on an up note.
Director James Mangold has streamlined his film to focus on two things: the music (a number of Cash songs are played uninterrupted) and the love story. Johnny's drug use becomes a key element in the romance, since it's ultimately June's perseverance that saves Johnny, not some innate desire to get clean. Ray portrayed its protagonist as an heroic figure. Walk the Line takes a different approach. Johnny is shown to be a flawed human being with a great talent. There's nobility in Johnny, but also more darkness than we see in Ray.
Oscar nominations are likely for Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, and it will be tough to argue against them. Witherspoon gives one of her finest performances in years (granted, she has been appearing mostly in fluff lately), and Phoenix astonishes. His physical resemblance to Cash is superficial, but he has perfected the voice, both when speaking and singing. Supporting actors include Robert Patrick as Johnny's unloving father, Tyler Hilton as a young Elvis Presley, and Shooter Jennings as his father, Waylon.
The running length of Walk the Line is just about right. 135 minutes is long enough to develop a coherent narrative (rather than making this feel like a "best of" story) without dragging things out. I will admit to not having been excited about seeing Walk the Line before sitting down to watch it, but Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon converted me. During the course of the picture, someone describes Johnny's voice as being "steady like a train, sharp like a razor." That sounds to me like a fitting description of Walk the Line, as well.

Movie Reviews and Criticism by James Berardinelli. Movie-Reviews.colossus.net