Finding the trauma in his life whisked away by the power of song, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) commits his early years to understanding how music works, and looking for his big break. After marrying young (Vivian Cash is played by Ginnifer Goodwin), Cash soon takes to the road, touring along with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), while his records climb the charts. Unsatisfied with his situation, Cash soon starts to chase Carter, who reluctantly gives in to him and soon regrets her decision when Cash's life dissolves into a kaleidoscope of anger, pills, and disappointment.
Writer/director James Mangold clearly has a soaring affection for Johnny Cash, since "Walk the Line" (IMDb listing) is a straight-up love letter to the late, great singing legend. However, in his effort to illustrate the power of will Cash demonstrated in his life, Mangold's focus is thrown askew, making "Line" all about Cash's demons, and displaying almost none of his joy.
Cringingly, "Walk the Line" is as formulaic a biographical picture as can be made. "Line" follows the same route as last year's Oscar winning "Ray," taking the audience on a ride through broken childhood, professional growth, heavy womanizing, and ultimately drugs and despair. It seems that anything related to music has to follow these pathways; yet, these films continue to be made, completely oblivious that they are all alike. Mangold is a director with some sense of personality ("Girl, Interrupted," "Cop Land"), so it's a surprise that he would stoop to keeping "Line" so attentive to the familiar. Thankfully, Cash's cinematic story is a convincing one, taking the singer from the tragic loss of his older brother as a child, to the heights of fame, to his stormy courtship with the unresponsive June Carter. "Walk the Line" is basic to a fault, but it has the raw materials to get it at least halfway to success.
Taking the film the rest of the way are the performances, which are spellbinding. Joaquin Phoenix takes the challenge of impersonating Cash very seriously, and he sweats, glares, and stalks his way to a meticulous performance. In a dramatic choice, Mangold has instructed his cast to do their own singing, allowing the performers to slip into the skin of the songs and feel around. Phoenix does a spot-on job mimicking Cash's baritone and swagger, at times becoming one with the man in black. Phoenix is no stranger to jittery, internalized roles, so his domestic Cash is decent work. It's only when Phoenix hits the stage does the audience see just how far the actor has dug into his role. The concert sequences are electric, and prop the film up when Mangold finds himself beating the audience over the head with Cash's dark moments.
Reese Witherspoon's performance is the real surprise here. Also doing her own signing, Witherspoon has the perfect twang to bring June Carter to life. Her chemistry with Phoenix onstage is worth the price of admission alone, with the two actors making every moment together glow. Unfortunately, when Carter is off the stage, the script reduces her to a nag, constantly berating Cash about his lifestyle choices. Mangold isn't particularly kind to women in "Line," and maybe that's the way Cash saw his own life. For the film to work, however, Carter needed to be seen as a siren that Cash couldn't live without, but that feeling is never solidified. Instead of swooning over the couple and their battles to love each other, "Line" becomes a giant exercise in figuring out just what Carter saw in Cash in the first place. Not quite what Mangold had in mind, I'm sure.
As "Line" delves further and further into Cash's addictions and downward spiral, less time is given to his musical triumphs, robbing the film of a true depiction. The legendary Folsom Prison concert, which lightly bookends the film, is a powerhouse, cleanly displaying the fire in Cash's belly, as well as his mischief. There isn't enough of that in "Line." The dedication to the drug abuse encompasses way too much screentime, and it steals the focus from the romance in the Cash-Carter union. "Walk the Line" only tells part of the Cash legend (the film ends in the late 1960s), with a heartbreaking coda (which states that Cash died in 2003 a mere four months after June), hinting that perhaps Mangold was looking in the wrong era to find out what made Johnny Cash tick.
Filmfodder Grade: B-