“Walk the Line” is a strongly acted, musically vibrant, conventionally satisfying biopic of country/rock/blues legend Johnny Cash and his second wife, June Carter. Absorbing and entertaining, James Mangold’s heartfelt feature follows the predictable format for musical bios, encompassing popular singers’ performance highs and drug-addled lows, and could have benefited from a rougher edge in line with the main subject’s outlaw image. Already being pushed as this year’s “Ray,” Fox release can look forward to swaggering B.O. generally, especially from Middle America.
It’s an exceptional time for biographical performances in Hollywood films, what with Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and David Strathairn in “Good Night, and Good Luck” already stirring major pre-release excitement. Add to those the lead turns in “Walk the Line.” Reese Witherspoon does a sensational job as lifelong performer June Carter, while Joaquin Phoenix gains in conviction as pic builds to put over a very credible Johnny Cash. Their surprisingly good vocal perfs on the many well-known songs are icing on the cake.
Based on two Cash autobiographies and written with input from the couple up to their deaths in 2003, script by Gill Dennis and Mangold spends just enough time on Cash’s rural ’40s Arkansas youth to establish two keys to his personality: the tragic death of his beloved older brother in a dreadful circle-saw accident, and his father’s intransigent disdain for Johnny, whom he saw as his “bad” son. “The Devil did this,” Ray Cash (Robert Patrick) rails. “He took the wrong son.”
Johnny’s Air Force career in Germany is briefly visited to show him buying a guitar and seeing a film about Folsom Prison that inspired him to start composing, which comes in handy a few years later when he rescues a hitherto dud audition for Sun Records’ Sam Phillips by singing the song with the renegade lyric, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.”
By the time he’s 23, in 1955, Johnny has got his first hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry”; he’s married to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), with one daughter born and more on the way; and he’s on a wild boogie-woogie tour with the equally young Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne, looking more like James Dean than like Lewis), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton, not bad) and June Carter, a bubbly, sassy performer with personality to spare. Although June is married too, she and Johnny establish a strong, friendly bond in a well-written diner scene that nicely portends the enduring relationship to come.
The tours just keep on comin’ over the next few years. When June gets divorced, Johnny begins coming on to her. But when she bolts after he gets too frisky with her onstage, Johnny comes apart, triggering the writing of “I Walk the Line,” his indelible evocation of the difficulty of dealing with marriage and outside temptation, something Johnny’s not always real good at.
He also succumbs to amphetamine addiction, on top of the boozing and carousing on tour. By the mid-’60s, after a decade of hoping and trying, Johnny finally gets June to bed down with him, but he promptly collapses onstage and goes into a tailspin that includes the implosion of his marriage, financial distress and a general withdrawal.
Despite the constant hopping about to critical moments in Johnny’s life, individual scenes are generally convincing, and they’re nicely juggled to distribute humor, musical highlights and convulsive confrontations.
Delightful interludes include a disgusted June discovering Johnny and the other boys still on an all-night bender on a bottle-strewn stage one morning before a matinee, and a bit in which Elvis offers Johnny some chili fries.
Giving both Johnny and the picture the strength they need is June’s absolutely no-BS attitude toward life. She can’t abide Johnny’s self-destructive behavior and unwillingness to see things as they are. Still, when he hits rock-bottom, she’s there to provide him with a second chance in life if he’s willing. Winning and tough, Witherspoon simply could not be better in her most serious, fully elaborated performance to date.
Professional and musical climax comes with the celebrated January 1968 Folsom Prison performance, which is electrifying and sees Phoenix’s perf in full flower.
Except for Witherspoon’s, Southern accents throughout are on the light side, and same can be said for the film itself, which has a polished sheen where a greater grittiness would have been appropriate. Although this Johnny Cash walks the walk of the Man in Black, it’s never entirely clear why he was perceived as more dangerous than his contemporaries, and a bolder, less prefab approach could have helped.
Still, “Walk the Line” moves along in a confident, pleasing way that provides a good feel for its characters and what they went through over the years. Supporting turns are solid and technical work thoroughly pro.