Walk the Line

Movie Information

Genre: Biopic
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts
Rated: PG-13

I’m probably not the best audience for this, since the persuasive charms of country music have yet to persuade or charm me. Thus I can’t say how well the film will play to a viewership made up of Johnny Cash fans — though I suspect they will be in more immediate sympathy with Walk the Line than I am. I cannot, and will not, attempt to judge the film musically, though I did find the film’s most interesting aspect to be its depiction of a time when the division between country music and rock music was much less distinct than it ultimately became (owing as much to a political/ideological split as an aesthetic one).

As a portrait of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) the man, it falls under the heading of the solidly made — occasionally stolidly made — basic biopic. All in all, the film reduces Cash’s story to a little bit of background (including a childhood tragedy), a lot of onstage posturing (that never crosses over into real life), and a love story (complete with “meeting cute,” endless obstacles and a wholly Hollywoodized ending).

In other words, yes, it’s last year’s overrated Ray with an all-white cast — and it’s ultimately about as dramatically inert. Rather than offering us a biographical drama about Johnny Cash, what we’re given is the A&E Biography version — two slices of white bread and nothing between them to make the sandwich.

What’s strange is that the film doesn’t shy away from the more obviously unpretty aspects of Cash’s life — the womanizing, the drunkenness, the pill addiction; in fact, it wallows in the drinking and pill-popping. We’re treated to the trash-the-dressing-room scene, the Johnny-discovers-pills scene, the inevitable Johnny-makes-a-public-spectacle-of-himself-while-high scene, and several private variations on the latter.

Walk the Line also doesn’t short-circuit the infidelities and the failure of Cash’s first marriage (though it never quite gets down in the dirt on this last because it never addresses Cash’s need for someone as much in love with his music as with him). But these things are showbiz standards when all is said and done (and we saw most of them played out in Ray). Mostly, they serve to simplify the complexities of the man by sleight of hand. Throw some “realistic” dirt at us and we won’t ask the real questions — the ones that actually make Cash fascinating. Instead, we settle for a handful of glib answers.

The film’s approach is one of utter reduction. Explain Cash’s drive by focusing on an abusive and dismissive father (Robert Patrick, Supercross). Lay his glumness at the feet of the childhood accident that took the life of his movie-styled, too-good-for-this-world brother Jack (Lucas Till, The Adventures of Ociee Nash). Blame his descent into drugs and booze on a bad marriage and his unrequited love for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Frame it all as a series of memories centered around a break in the middle of Cash’s (heavily fictionalized) Folsom Prison concert. Flesh all this out with the standard movie inspirational-flash approach to creativity that’s been at the heart of biopics since Cary Grant’s Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day,” thanks to a rain shower, a ticking clock and Alexis Smith walking though a door at just the right time.

It’s shrewd stuff from director and co-writer James Mangold, who needs a hit after the lackluster performances of Kate and Leopold and Identity, and it’s almost certainly going to be a crowd-pleaser. But at what artistic cost?

Where are the probing questions about Cash reinventing himself as a hard-ass convict he never was? Where is anything of the dichotomy of the man who tried to reconcile Christianity with a flamboyant lifestyle, or his generally left-leaning politics with a traditionally conservative core audience? These amazing contradictions are far more interesting than watching a hopped-up star briefly disgrace himself onstage, but they’re harder to dramatize and they can’t be explained away with easy answers, so they’re ignored. A braver, better film would have raised such questions, even if it couldn’t answer them — maybe especially if it couldn’t answer them.

Instead we’re handed a happy-ever-after redemptive moment, created by a completely imaginary onstage proposal to June and her acceptance, followed by the now-obligatory series of titles filling us in on the next 35 years in two minutes or less. (Only here we find New Yorker Mangold attempting to sound Southern by referring to June’s death by saying she “passed.”)

Yes, the film is slick, and even though the structure is clunky and it runs overlong, it works within stock biopic limits — though this is in part due to a lively performance by Reese Witherspoon offsetting the glowering one from Joaquin Phoenix. But ultimately, Walk the Line doesn’t do much to really illuminate its subject. Rated PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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