It's not the best way to kick off a review of Walk The Line, James Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic, by saying that I have virtually no knowledge of Cash's life or his music. But I thought it best to come clean instead of blagging my way through the rest of the review, this being my first one for AV forums and all. Still, I guess it means that I'll have few preconceptions to cloud my judgement. On with the review...
After a brief opening sequence set at Folsom prison (the setting of one of Cash's greatest recordings) the movie starts proper with a brief sojourn into Cash's cotton-pickin' childhood in Arkansas in the mid-forties. It focuses mainly on his cold relationship with his father Ray and the tragic death of his older brother Jack. Being a PG-13 movie we're spared the gruesome details of Jack's accident, but the aftermath is no less unsettling as Ray (played by Robert Patrick) bemoans God for taking the wrong son, instilling a sense of worthlessness in Cash that would plague him for years to come. Thankfully his mother (singer Shelby Lynne) also instils in Cash a love of music. We quickly flit forward a number of years and arrive at young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) joining the US Air Force, where he seemingly first begins to explore his affinity for music while stationed in Germany in 1952.
Three years later we then wind up back in the States, Memphis to be precise, Cash having married old flame Vivian (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and living the frustrated life of your average low-paid, small-town husband and wife. While his career as a door-to-door salesman stalls, Cash finds the time to set up a three-piece band with a couple of friends and, increasingly desperate for money, he manages to get a demo with a local record producer. Cash is soon signed up to Sam Philips' Sun Records label, and goes on tour along with other trailblazers in the Sun stable like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and one Elvis Presley. It's on this tour that he finds himself getting familiar with the two things that the rest of the film concentrates on: June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and those darned drugs.
From there on the film continues to fast-forward through as much of Cash's life - or rather Johnny and June's lives - as it's possible to cram into 135 minutes. What's here is pretty succinct, covering Cash's descent into substance abuse; Cash getting busted for possession in El Paso; his legendary recording at Folsom prison and so on, all set to the main thread of his on/off relationship with June. Director/co-writer James Mangold has given himself just enough to room to make sure that the pacing of the film is fairly well-balanced, although some characters tend be little more than set dressing, such is the brevity required in telling a story concentrating on two people spanning several years. Mangold does succumb to the odd musical montage and the last act (while Cash recuperates from his drug addiction) does lag slightly. But it picks up again near the end, and while we don't get an A-Z of Cash's life the film is capped with a particularly emotional (and apparently true) moment in the life of Carter & Cash that I won't spoil here.
Walk The Line might not be particularly original, but it still manages to push many of the right buttons so it's not surprising that the film has been such a hit with critics and fans alike. The performances from the two leads are just superb, imbuing their characters with real depth and the scene where Cash and his band demo for Sam Philips is a stand-out for me. It's at this point that the movie, and indeed Joaquin Phoenix's performance, really comes alive, and as Cash goes from singing a tired gospel tune to the self-penned 'Folsom Prison Blues' I could really feel the energy start to build. The camera goes tighter on Cash and lingers for longer and longer, and Phoenix is mesmerising here as he perfectly realises the heart-felt strains of a man who knows that this is his shot at the big time - and he's not gonna waste it. Phoenix's brooding manner never quite gives way to the darkness that made up Cash's soul (and maybe even Phoenix's own, highlighted by his recent stint in rehab for alcohol addiction) but he projects an intensity that manages to keep us interested even when he's not laying down a hit song or destroying bathroom fittings.
Reese Witherspoon puts those baby blues to use as June Carter and she is absolutely wonderful in the role. It's not a part that requires the greatest range acting-wise (thankfully it doesn't demand Oscar-baiting histrionics), but combine Witherspoon's perky screen persona with a hint of fragility, a touch of anger and a maturity that I honestly thought was beyond her, and we end up with a super performance. She deserves the plaudits simply for producing such a controlled and detailed turn in the face of Phoenix's sink-mangling antics. She's a mighty purdy gal, too.
The supporting cast are good value, although there isn't too much screen time for them to really shine (we're never even introduced to Cash's bass player and electric guitarist; they just appear about twenty minutes in) with a puffy Robert Patrick putting in a decent turn as Cash's aloof father. Ginnifer Goodwin is far too whiny and teary-eyed for my liking as Cash's long-suffering wife Vivian, but then I suppose that that makes Witherspoon's composed performance stand out even more. The biggest supporting player (maybe even the star) is the music however, and it's sung with aplomb by the two leads, having also learned to play their own instruments for the production. Phoenix puts that brooding intensity to good use, displaying a vocal talent that can really hold your attention, as well as every sonorous note of Cash's songs. Witherspoon may not capture the character of June Carter's vocals, but she gives it a good go and acquits herself admirably. Even Tyler Hilton as that Presley fella puts in a fine rendition of 'That's Alright Mama'.
Minor niggles aside, Walk The Line is a triumph. It pulls few punches, and those that it does (Cash's drugs are only ever mentioned as “pills”) are mere small details. The music is fantastic, the central performances are even better and it has a running time that still leaves some sensation in your behind.
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