Walk the Line

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Walk the Line
Review (9/10)
(By Caroline Thibodeaux)

As one of the many people who enjoyed the thriller Identity and as one of the few who actually liked the romantic comedy Kate and Leopold (I watch bits of it whenever it is on.) I tend to look forward to the offerings of writer-director James Mangold. I enjoy his ability to transcend genres (the above-mentioned as well as Girl, Interrupted and Copland), his carefully drawn characterizations and his compelling yet unartsy visual style. His work has a habit of creeping up on the audience in an unassuming manner and reveals hidden kernels of charm and depth of meaning upon repeat viewing. So I looked forward with great anticipation to Walk the Line, Mangold's biopic of the late, great Johnny Cash. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Signs) stars as The Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde, Election) portrays June Carter, the love of his life.

There's so much going on in and around this film. Beginning with Mangold's burden of responsibility in accurately portraying the lives of two very well known and well-loved legends of country music that lived out their personal love affair in a very public manner. The Cashes passed away in 2003 a mere four months apart and the loss is deeply felt among the music industry and by their legions of fans. Phoenix and Witherspoon perform these roles using their own vocals ? this undertaking alone raises the stakes exponentially. Their efforts need to be creditable enough to even begin to pay homage to the memory of these two icons of popular music. And the inevitable comparison to last year's Ray (which 20th Century Fox is banking on to bring in critical and commercial success.) is like the 500 lb. gorilla in the room, which simply cannot and certainly should not be ignored.

The easiest place to begin is with Phoenix. The film opens in 1968 with Cash readying to perform the first of his legendary concerts at Folsom Prison. Phoenix is shown gazing at and fingering a table saw and as all biopics must, the obligatory flashback to an uneasy childhood ensues. Phoenix is marvelous as Cash. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to watch the film more than once in order to fully appreciate what Phoenix is putting himself through in order to play this role. There's the physical -- When Cash stood on stage with that guitar --strumming it as though accompanying a death march while alternatively using it to shoot down an appreciative audience ? the man smoldered and you couldn't take your eyes off him. Phoenix has that same physicality down to an uncanny science and it electrifies the concert sequences. There's the emotional -- Phoenix embodies the dark nature of Cash, so much so that you believe he could kill a man just to watch him die. You see a man in danger of self-combusting in his own Ring of Fire fueled by rage, self-doubt, drugs and alcohol (the four humours of the rock and roll star). And then there's just plain depth of craft. Cash had an unmistakable bass-baritone singing and speaking voice. No one else sounded like him and that played a major role in his success. Phoenix's natural voice is pitched at a much higher timbre than Cash's and he is singing these songs in Cash's low keys. It is a true testament to Phoenix's preparation and dedication to getting it right that he is able to dig down and create the rich full stentorian tones with technical proficiency. I never thought it was actually Cash singing (unlike Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors), but he comes very close a couple of times ? especially on ?Ring of Fire?.

At this moment Reese Witherspoon should be consulting with various and sundry stylists in order to prepare herself for the numerous red carpet appearances she'll be making this awards season. The only thing that could prevent her from being nominated for everything this year would be if she suddenly became pregnant with Tom Cruise's love child. Always a capable, intelligent and delightful actor to behold, Ms. Witherspoon is flawless as June Carter ? the show business royalty and lifer who fights with every thing in her system to not become consumed within the conflagration which would be life with Johnny Cash. She is often the only light in the film and she illumes brightest when challenged by the overwhelming darkness within Cash's soul that threatens to destroy him at every turn. Witherspoon took voice lessons and was reportedly terrified to sing in this film. (In my opinion, Witherspoon sings better than Carter does.) She has such affection and respect for Carter that it shows in every scene and in every nuance she employs. She treats Carter with tremendous care, dignity and strength, and never at the risk of relinquishing her grace and Southern charm. With every frame she's in the audience knows perfectly well why John fell so hard for her and wants her so much. The audience ends up falling in love with her as much as Cash does.

One of the fun little ironies of this piece (not even concerning how long it took Cash to get his soul mate to marry him) involves the scope of the story that Mangold tells of these people. Here you have a major motion picture biography of the first man ever elected to both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. (He did this a long time before Elvis.) His music has been performed on over a thousand albums and he must have traveled the world over countless times. You pair him up with a woman who has been in show business literally all her life. She is a major part of the country music legacy that is the Carter Family. She was singing and telling jokes on the radio and on stage long before Cash even envisioned a career in music. This is a film about two supernovas that have seen and done everything there is to do. But the film simply boils down to a romantic household drama. For two lovers with such enormous and outsize lives, at the end of the day you have a woman who strolls into the Rexall to purchase a rod and reel so she can go fishing in the middle of the day at the local watering hole of whatever town her tour has dropped into. You have a man present at the beginning of Rock and Roll who would help define what it means to be a ?Rock Star? working out his esteem issues on the top of a tractor. Witnessing how complex they are in their simplicity and watching how their relationship plays out is the dramatic arc of this film.

I can go on about this for a long time, as I wrote earlier, there's a lot going on around this film. I would be remiss not to mention the stellar supporting work of Ginnifer Goodwin (Mona Lisa Smile, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!) as John's first wife Vivian. We first see her as an immature daddy's girl mortified by the vocation that has chosen her husband. Even with his success you never get the impression that she ever quite accepts him and any real affection they could have had for each other is doomed. While she's never fully sympathetic, she's not the villain either (John is.) and as her character matures into a real woman you realize that what she does is all in the name of survival. Goodwin is superb exhibiting the layers of this character in a subtle, seething fashion. And it's not a simple catfight. You'd be mad too if your husband made figurative love to another woman on stage every night.

In the role of the ever-disapproving and disappointed father we have a gritty Robert Patrick (why Terminator 2, of course) portraying a steely-eyed Ray Cash as the parent who understands the child well but isn't about to do anything to help him. Stage actor Dallas Roberts (A Home At the End of the World, the recent NY revival of Burn This) plays Sun Records pioneering producer Sam Phillips. He only has 2 scenes and he carves an indelible portrait of the man who would nurture the nascent careers of Cash, Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips is the mentor who would pour the lighter fuel all over Johnny's embers.

By dint of the film being a musical biopic of a recently deceased icon and with the way the film's studio is positioning and grooming the piece for year end awards consideration, the comparisons to last year's Ray are bound to be made and are indeed justified. On the surface of both films there are entirely too many things in common. There is unspeakable childhood tragedy, drug and alcohol abuse, unhappy wives at home, plus the endless grind of the road balanced by career ascendancy and long in the works personal triumphs. But there are differences, which helps each film maintain its individuality. Phoenix and Witherspoon providing actual vocals serves as a major departure from the earlier film. And there are the differences in the subjects themselves. Cash isn't dealing with rampant racism or blindness. He is by nature his own worst enemy. And his abuses aren't explained away by childhood trauma or ?fixed' by a metaphysical fever dream suffered during rehab where he is allowed to redeem himself for trespasses real and/or imagined. Cash cleans up in order to get the girl. Mangold trusts the old axiom that the best story is a love story and Cash can only redeem himself by the love of a good woman.

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