Walk the Line
Everyone seems to enjoy a come back story. It gives us all hope that no matter what we can get a second chance, another opportunity to make up for failure and strive to be better. No one seems to have embodied this as did the late Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). Here was a man that was in prison, suffered from a long battle with drug addiction but found himself because of the love he shared with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). As this film looks at the life of Cash we see that this was a man who never had an average time, he was either on top or plunging towards self destruction. Cash never lived in gray areas. While many biographies feel obliged to tell the story from cradle to grave ‘Walk the Line’ instead focus n his turmoil filled relationship with Carter. Sure, there is the required background provided more to set the stage than offer an excuse for his drastic lows but the heart of this piece is a love story.
John R. Cash was born and raised in rural Arkansas in the forties. The film relates two events that would, for better or worse, help mold his personality. First was the tragic death of his older brother Jack (Lucas Till). His brother was just about cut in two by a circular saw in a mill. It took several agonizing days for Jack to die, something that would haunt Johnny for the rest of his life. Then there was the way his father, Ray Cash (Robert Patrick), viewed Johnny. He was always seen as the bad son, the one that would amount to no good. His father would lament that the wrong son was taken from him. As so often happens in life negative expectations are self fulfilling and John R. Cash would frequently find himself acting out against any form of authority. Johnny winds up in the air force and serves as a disc jockey for the armed service radio. It’s there in Germany that he purchases his first guitar and begins to write his own songs. Shortly after returning to the States two other milestones in his life occurs. He sees a ‘B’ flick about Folsom Prison which intensifies his song writing and he starts to seek a recording career. His audition for Sun records has a little controversy over a particular line in one of his songs; ‘I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die’. Cash was never really known for pop song lyrics after all.
In 1955 Cash was only 23 but already a rising star. He had his first hit record, ‘Cry, Cry. Cry’, was married to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and had one daughter with another child on the way. Cash was touring the country with some other young performers, Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and June Carter. Although both Cash and Carter are married to other people at the time the close proximity of the tour is fertile ground for a friendship and eventual romance to blossom. One incredible scene is after June is divorced and Johnny gets a little too playful on stage. She pushes away from his advances and he winds up writing ‘I Walk the Line’ about how he is prone to take things too far. The constant pressures of the touring take a heavy toil on Cash. He begins taking amphetamines which soon leads to a full addiction. After he finally consummates his relationship with Carter he collapses on stage and the career he had put so much into begins to dissolve. He is headed for financial and professional ruination. Just when things look the bleakest June Carter’s love helps Cash to regain himself and his career.
Bringing a well known person’s life to the screen is very tricky indeed. Some go for the look-a-like, someone that resembles the person regardless of their acting ability. Here a different road was taken and we should all be very thankful. This film captures who these people where and what made them so beloved by the American public. Cash was far from a perfect man. When you read about a contestant for American Idol being booted off for some early indiscretion you have to wonder how Cash would have faired in such an environment, would we have been deprived of his talent for such matters? Cash took the difficulties and tribulations in his life and instead of being drowned by them used them themes for his songs. His music was raw, he was not the greatest signer or guitar player, but his music spoke to the hearts of those that listened to him. When this man with a craggy face took the stage and started to sing everyone paid attention. This film shows Cash warts and all and that is how it should be. Cash and Carter where involved with this production until their deaths in 2003. I think they would be happy about the way it turned out.
I have to admit I had to wonder about the casting when it was first announced. Joaquin Phoenix has been acting since he was about eight and this is the role of a lifetime for him. There is much in Phoenix’ life that most likely helped him into the mind of Cash. Phoenix lost his brother and drug addiction was prevalent in his family. Phoenix gives us an unvarnished view of a complex man by never being apologetic for his character. He allows the audience to feel they know Cash. We watch and know the mistakes that are about to be made but somehow understand why he made those choices without have to personally approve of them. Reese Witherspoon is another actor who I have always enjoyed watching. She was a child star but unlike so many that winds up on True Hollywood Stories, she has grown into a successful actor, producer and mother. She is bubbly without being annoying, a rear trait indeed. Her real life maternal nature comes across in her performance of Carter. She shows June Carter as a woman in love with a man that most see as completely wrong for her. Witherspoon has garnered many awards for this performance and deserved them all. Both of these talented actors had to learn to sing and play their instruments for this film. It’s a nice touch when the actors are not lip synching. Together Phoenix and Witherspoon have exceptional chemistry on screen and this take the film to even higher levels.
Director James Mangold may not be the same household name as other directors but that is sure to change. With a resume that includes ‘Girl, Interrupted’ and ‘Heavy’ he has demonstrated that he can handle just about any story. His direction here is excellent, the way he paces the film holds the audience’s interest never letting us fall into a slow spot. He frames each shot with an eye for the details of the sets and his use of lighting is artwork.
Fox offers this film in three variations; Pan & Scan, widescreen and collector’s edition. Forget the P&S version; you have to see all of Mangold’s vision in the original aspect ratio to get the most out of this film. For about $6.50 extra you might as well stick with the two disc collector’s edition. The second disc here features extended music scenes including ‘Rock and Roll Ruby’, ‘Jackson’ and ‘Cocaine Blues’. There is also a making of featurette and interviews with a wide variety of musicians about the influence of Johnny Cash. All versions have 10 deleted scenes and a director’s commentary. The 2.40:1 anamorphic video is reference quality. The color balance is just about the best I have seen. The Dolby 5.1 audio is rich and gives a full robust sound field. This film deserves a place of honor in your collection.