In “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix plays country music legend Johnny Cash, an infinitely talented man marred by his own obsessions. The film follows Cash from his humble beginnings on his family’s farm in Arkansas to his celebrated concert inside the walls of Folsom Prison in California. It is a beautiful tribute to the life and music of an immensely gifted, yet deeply complicated, man.
Despite being an outstanding artist, Cash was also an adulterer and an addict. To its credit, director James Mangold’s film doesn’t pull any punches for the sake of its main character. Instead, it paints a full and accurate picture of a talented man struggling to cope with his many vices.
In that vein, the film’s storyline bares many obvious similarities to last year’s Ray Charles biopic, “Ray.” Both men were famous musicians and both were shaken at an early age by the loss of a brother. Each man also battled serious drug addiction throughout his career.
The main difference between Charles and Cash was Cash’s obsessive personality. Blamed by his father for the death of his brother, Cash wanted to do nothing more than make his dad proud of him. Throughout his life, he tried unsuccessfully to earn his father’s praise. His vehicle became music, the only thing he ever really knew he was good at.
Cash was also obsessed with his future wife, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), years before he even met her. He admired her music as a young boy, and when he finally met her he would stop at nothing to have her. Over a period of more than a decade, Cash risked his wife and family in an attempt to win her over.
Cash and Carter had a special bond from the start. They both came from strict Christian homes and both had to deal with scorn for defying the principles of their religion. Cash attempted to begin his music career by singing gospel music. When he realized he would never be signed that way, he didn’t hesitate to change his style by catering to prisoners and singing about more risqu? material.
Carter went through two divorces – more than a sin in the 1950s. Carter and Cash related to each other remarkably well, yet Carter was caught in a moral dilemma and refused Cash’s advances.
The struggles during this courtship – combined with the guilt Cash felt because of his father – manifested themselves as his third obsession, a dangerous addiction to prescription pills. As Cash got caught up in the celebrity life, he sank deeper and deeper into depression and addiction.
Phoenix captures this side of Cash perfectly, engaging the audience from the beginning and never letting go. His performance – easily the best of his career – isn’t an imitation; it’s a work of art. Phoenix captures every nuance and movement that made Cash the man he was.
If it’s even possible, Witherspoon is one step better as June Carter. She lights up the screen with every word, matching Phoenix’s fervor. The pair has a staggering chemistry on the screen, which helps in creating an immensely believable and engaging love story.
As if that wasn’t enough, both Phoenix and Witherspoon took things a step further by doing their own singing for the film. Who knew the girl from “Legally Blond” could belt out a country song like that? Even if you’re not a fan of country music – and admittedly, I’m not – every song in “Walk the Line” is appealing and fun.
While “Walk the Line” is certainly carried to success on the shoulders of its two main performances, it’s still not a perfect film. At times, Mangold has a problem managing the narrative flow. At one point, a single day is explored in a half hour. At another point, eight years fly by in a two-minute montage.
“Walk the Line” is also more about the strength of its actors, and less about giving the viewer a stunning product to look at. There’s nothing special about the visuals here, but nothing detrimental either. Mangold, directing his sixth feature film, seems to just be going through the motions here and sticking to the same generic biopic style we’ve seen so many times before.
Still, no minor details can take away what Phoenix and Witherspoon have done here. Without a doubt, they’ll be at the Kodak Theatre in March for the Academy Awards. Carter – who passed away in May 2003 – and Cash – who followed four months later – would have been very proud of the tribute that has been brought to the screen.