In the opening moments of Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) gently thumbs the edge of a buzzsaw in the wood shop of Folsom Prison moments before his infamous concert before its inmates. The blade of this saw, an instrument which altered the course of Cash's life when he was eleven years old, sums up all of the man's struggles in one simple visual. His desire to do right by the people he loves, his desire for forgiveness and love and acceptance and redemption — those desperate wants are the thin line of a saw blade, and with every fall off the edge, the cuts run deeper.
It's difficult to discuss Walk the Line without comparing and contrasting it to 2004's Ray. Not only did both movies deal with roughly the same periods in the lives of their subjects (Ray Charles, obviously, in the case of Ray), but the subjects themselves were far more similar than they might have seemed from looking only at their album covers. Both Charles and Cash grew up dirt-poor in the South; both lost a sibling as a child, and both felt responsible, though neither truly was; both were revolutionaries within their chosen musical styles; both suffered through drug habits that threatened to destroy their careers as they were riding the peaks; both were shitheels to the women who loved them. Walk the Line even feels like Ray, like the second episode of "VH1 Presents: Musical Genius Drug-Addict Shitheels. From the South."
Walk the Line
- Directed by James Mangold
- Written by Gill Dennis, James Mangold
- Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick
The direction by James Mangold wasn’t flashy (which might be my only complaint about the movie, minor as that is). It felt as if Mangold was employing the “turn the camera on and get out of the way” approach to film direction, and in this case that proved to be a shrewd choice. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon both learned to sing and play their instruments for this movie, and that work pays off: knowing that the actors were really performing the songs added a gut-level believeability to their parts that wouldn’t have been there had they been lip-synching to the original tunes.1 That detail allows Phoenix’s Cash to feel less like an impersonation than Jamie Foxx’s Charles.2
Phoenix was the perfect choice to play Cash — the dark hair, the solemn set of his face, the depth and darkness that always seem to play just beneath his features, even in lighter moments. Phoenix has a gravitas to him, that particular screen presence that can't be manufactured, and that weightiness fits the role of Johnny Cash perfectly. It wasn't all black and heavy with Cash, though, and Phoenix lets the softer side of Cash come through, a much larger softer side than one might have expected from the man's image and music. The Oscar nomination coming Phoenix's way is well-deserved. Just a fantastic performance — the image of pure joy on Cash's face as he sings on stage with June the first stayed with me for awhile after the lights came up.
Reese Witherspoon freed herself from the breezy comedies she's been largely confined to over the last several years and showed once again what she's capable of when given strong material. Witherspoon's assignment for this movie was a difficult one: she had to play a performer whose public persona was airy, theatrical and a bit silly — but more importantly, had to play the private June Carter, a woman for whom none of those words applied. Witherspoon's natural charm makes it easy to see why Cash falls so hard for her — as does Jerry Lee Lewis, June's two ex-husbands and, undoubtedly, most of the men who met her — but in addition, she conveys the inner strength and resolve of June Carter beautifully. She's certainly more than earned her own Oscar nomination for her performance.
I was also pleased to note that Cash's first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), isn't played as the villain of the piece: she's not simply the woman standing in between John and June. It would have been easy to portray Vivian as a shrew, to make the audience root for John to leave her and run into June's arms, but Mangold and Goodwin don't go for the easy way out, presenting her instead as a woman coming to grips with the fact that she and her husband have different wants out of life. Goodwin plays pained very well; her realization that John has been in love with another woman for years was as heartbreaking for the audience as for her.
Walk the Line ends at a point which I would have imagined would have occurred far earlier in the movie: it ends with the coming together of Johnny Cash and June Carter. (That's not a spoiler — this isn't a will-they-or-won't-they story. And, anyway, it's biography. You already know they're going to get married.) When the credits roll, the audience knows there's still plenty of story left to tell, but we've know we've been told the important parts — the parts that made Johnny Cash the man and the musician he was. Anything more would have been crossing the line.
Mangold even includes an original Cash-Carter recording during the ending credits; the difference between the real deal and the actors was obvious. Instead of taking away from the actors’ performances, however (“Wow, he really didn’t sound much like Johnny Cash at all, did he?”), the fact that the singing was so obviously Phoenix and Witherspoon only made them that much more impressive. ↩
I don’t mean that as a knock against Foxx — impersonation it might have been, but it was superbly skilled impersonation. Charles’s particular personal idiosyncracies, however, are far better known to the general public, and Foxx would have been heavily criticized if he didn’t present the Ray Charles with whom everyone was already familiar. Cash’s quirks weren’t as extravagant or as distinctive as Charles’, giving Phoenix more latitude with his performance. ↩