© 2005 Ray Wong
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Gill Dennis, James Mangold (based on Johnny Cash’s biography and book, The Man in Black)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, thematic material and drugs
Running time: 136 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total Score – 7.6 out of 10
Hollywood loves a good biopic about rock stars. Last year, we had the exceptional RAY. This year, we have WALK THE LINE, a fine story about the original man in black: Johnny Cash.
The film opens at the Folsom prison, where the thumping beats of a band rouse the inmates with roaring anticipation. Then the story flashes back to Johnny Cash’s (Phoenix) childhood. Born to a poor farming family, Johnny and his big brother Jack (Lucas Till) are very close. Then tragedy strikes, and their father, Ray (Patrick), blames Johnny for Jack’s death. When Johnny grows up, he marries his sweetheart Vivian (Goodwin), moves to Memphis, and takes up a job as a salesman. But his heart belongs to music. One day he takes the bull by the horns and auditions at a studio. His unique voice and heart-felt songs impress the owner, Sam Phillips (Roberts), and Johnny is quickly signed with the studio.
While on tour, Johnny develops a crush on fellow singer-songwriter June Carter (Witherspoon). They hold off their mutual attraction toward each other because they’re both married with children. To get himself through the frustration and the crazy lifestyle, Johnny becomes addicted to drugs, and he starts to alienate himself from his friends and family, including June. She finds herself falling in love with him, but she knows she shouldn’t – she’s frightened by his way of life, and how people are going to perceive her, especially among fellow Christians. Johnny’s self destruction takes a toll on both of them. Eventually, they must find a way to right their lives and deal with their love for each other.
Phoenix (LADDER 49) is sensational as the bigger-than-life Johnny Cash. It’s not easy to portray such as public figure. There’s a fine line between impersonation and soulful characterization. Phoenix succeeds in making the role his own. His young face is etched with lines of agony, remorse and confusion. Surely, he must channel his anguish of losing his own brother River years ago, and the deep hurt is apparent. Likewise, Witherspoon (JUST LIKE HEAVEN) gives a wonderful performance as the love of Johnny’s life. She balances her perky cuteness with soulful solemnity and maturity. She’s the moral center of Johnny’s life, and we feel their love and suffering together. Phoenix and Witherspoon make a good pair. Even more impressive, they sing their own songs. Their “Jackson” duet rivals the original with Johnny and June.
The supporting cast is strong. Goodwin (WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON) is affecting as Johnny’s bored, scared, and betrayed first wife Vivian. Patrick (LADDER 49) gives a solid performance as Johnny’s estranged father, and Roberts (A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD) impresses with his minor but pivotal role as the Sam Philips, the man who discovered Johnny Cash. Several actors have interesting cameos as Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), giving the film an amusing historical perspective.
Writer-Director Mangold (IDENTITY) has crafted a heart-felt, solid biopic. However, one can’t help but compare WALK THE LINE with last year’s RAY. Similar time periods, comparable stars, and parallel life stories that include childhood loss, infidelity, drug abuse, and family. It’s not fair to compare both films, but the similarities and differences are there. WALK THE LINE is a solid, entertaining film. The music is catchy and enjoyable, even if you’re not a Johnny Cash fan. Mangold makes an interesting choice of not aging the actors with makeup – even though the story covers only 15 years, the result is still somewhat weird. Also, the central conflicts in this film seem trivial and self-inflicting. It’s not to say Johnny Cash’s trials and tribulations are not valid; I just can’t shake the feeling that Cash really did lead a charmed life – he just chose to throw it away because he couldn’t live with himself. It’s not easy to sympathize with a central character like that.
Fortunately, there’s the character of June Carter. She’s the light and rock in the film. Witherspoon lights up the screen whenever she’s on, and she’s playing one of the best loved figures in music history. With that, we’re willing to go on the journey with them, just to see how she and Johnny can work it all out. Thus, the ending is both satisfying and appropriate. WALK THE LINE might not be a masterpiece, but between being a good biopic and a great love story, this film walks that line just beautifully.