Published on February 26th, 2006 | by Paul Greenwood0
Walk The Line
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne
When Johnny Cash died in 2003 his legacy was that not just of a country legend, but as one of the most successful and influential artists in the history of popular music. His turbulent life seemed tailor made for a movie adaptation and that’s what we have here, albeit one that only focuses on a specific period as Joaquin Phoenix portrays the man in black.
Opening with his legendary concert at Folsom Prison in 1968, we flash back to cover Cash’s life from a music loving young boy in the early ’40s right up to his taking the stage at Folsom. In between we learn of the events that had the most profound effect on him – being rejected by his father (Patrick) and the tragic death of his older brother. After a stint in the army where he developed his songwriting skills, the return to civilian life proves tough, with a young family to support and little money coming in through his work as a salesman.
Eventually managing to break into the music business barely improves matters domestically, with months at a time on the road touring with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis spelling trouble for his marriage, and the easy access to booze and pills threatening to destroy everything. Only a friendship with fellow singer June Carter (Witherspoon) holds him together, but her refusal to turn their relationship into something more and his ongoing battle with his personal demons cast doubt on whether he’ll survive at all.
All the biopic boxes are ticked – childhood trauma, early struggles, the drug years – and Mangold directs with efficiency rather than flair, but it’s the conviction of the performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon that make Walk The Line so compelling. At first glance Phoenix doesn’t look anything like Johnny Cash, but there are moments, particularly in profile, when the resemblance is striking. Jamie Foxx was very good as Ray Charles, but he had it easy with all the mannerisms he could appropriate. Phoenix doesn’t have any tricks to resort to and so has look deep into himself and find the tortured soul of the man to deliver a remarkable performance, even more so when you consider that he played and sang all the songs himself.
Witherspoon is, if anything, even better, providing the heart of the film as Cash’s guardian angel, and proving that she’s so much better than the rom-com fluff in which she can normally be found. Admittedly if you’re not amenable to the music then Walk The Line may prove a long haul. Quite frankly though, and to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, if you don’t like Johnny Cash, you can kiss my ass.