Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Walk the Line / ***½ (PG-13)

John R. Cash: Joaquin Phoenix
June Carter: Reese Witherspoon
Vivian Cash: Ginnifer Goodwin
Ray Cash: Robert Patrick
Sam Phillips: Dallas Roberts
Luther Perkins: Dan John Miller
Marshall Grant: Larry Bagby
Carrie Cash: Shelby Lynne
Elvis Presley: Tyler Hilton
Jerry Lee Lewis: Waylon Malloy Payne
Waylon Jennings: Shooter Jennings

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by James Mangold. Written by Gill Dennis and Mangold. Based on Man In Black and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash. Running time: 135 min. Rated PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency).

Early on in the Johnny Cash musical biopic Walk the Line we see a young boy looking up to a radio, listening to the 10 year-old June Carter, as if this device were some doorway to gain entrance into Valhalla. This boy is J.R. Cash, who will grow into the country folk legend who recorded an album live in Folsom Prison. His father yells at him to shut that noise box off, or some such sentiment, and the kid has no reaction what so ever. After he is yelled at two or three more times, his brother Jack, “the good one”, pleads with him to shut it off before their father comes in the room. J.R. relents for his good natured brother and the course of his life is set, at least up till that famous concert.

The film opens just moments before that famous concert with Cash staring at a table saw blade. It is really no surprise when the film then flashbacks to his childhood that his brother will meet an untimely end involving such an instrument, but that incident of his brother’s death marks Cash for life and provides him with both a self loathing and a drive to become something better. Their father, played with frightening severity by Robert Patrick (Copland), clearly favored the older brother and harbors much resentment toward J.R. that he survived, while his good son died.

The film barely mentions Cash’s service in the military as the place where he first develops his own musical talent, and after his service he never seems more out of place than as a family man trying to drum up a living as a door-to-door salesman. This is where Joaquin Phoenix’s (Gladiator) performance as the Man in Black first begins to emerge as the greatest yet of this fine actor’s already impressive resume. It is role built for a glorious performance, embodying an icon and revered artist, who is a hero but has descended to the depths of the human soul to become the great man people recognize. In that sense Phoenix has it made, but Phoenix grounds the role solidly in that “Man in Black” persona. He makes no excuses for the bastard Cash was most of the time; and unlike last year’s big musical biopic Ray, writer/director James Mangold (Identity) and co-writer Gill Dennis (Without Evidence) don’t try to forgive the character his demons, because his struggle with the vices of fame and fortune are not really what this movie is about.

After seeing the film my wife asked me why they didn’t title the movie Ring of Fire; perhaps Cash’s most popular work and one that figures into his romance with June Carter, who also wrote the lyrics. While those “Ring of Fire” lyrics could be said to fit his life of living hard and abusing drugs; the lyrics of the Cash penned song “I Walk the Line” are much more fitting to the film’s true subject, which is that awkward romance between Cash and Carter.

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the ties that bind
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

Although Cash wrote this song long before he finally won Carter’s hand, it seems, in the light of this film, this song could only have been written about her.

Carter is just about the perfect role for Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde), whose warm heart, intelligence, and good nature become the object of Cash’s obsession and the guiding light of both Cash’s life and this film. Witherspoon has the spunk necessary to allow the audience to understand how she could have toured along with the adolescent personalities of a group of performers that included Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison (although you never see Orbison partaking in the party nature of the other kids). God! What anyone today wouldn’t give to have seen that tour.

While all the drinking, drugs and general bad behavior of the rock star scene here is breaking no new ground (although even that part is solidly told), it is the unconventional romance between Carter and Cash that makes this film unique. As I said before, no apologies are made for Cash’s proclivities, which make it hard to find romantic appeal in the character, for both the audience and the character of June Carter. But it is that same good-heartedness of Carter’s that Cash has strived for his entire life trying to live up to his dead brother’s image, which makes it possible to believe that Carter truly sees the good in this man or can love him despite his darker natures. It is these contrasting personalities and their unlikely effectiveness together that Phoenix and Witherspoon so adeptly tap into in a way it is hard to imagine from any other pairing, which drives this romance to its happy conclusion on stage in Toronto when Cash’s proposal is finally accepted by Carter.

But I cannot let another important element of Phoenix and Witherspoon’s portrayals of this famous couple go unnoticed. These actors, along with finding unique attraction of personalities, perform their own vocals impeccably in this music heavy drama. It is striking how much these two sound like these wonderful singers. Even as the credits roll and we hear an original recording of Cash and Carter, only an owl’s ear can distinguish the difference between theirs and the actors’ voices.

It is truly surprising to me that the filmmakers actually pulled off the feat of this strange romance. I don’t remember disliking a character’s action in a film as much as I did Cash’s, especially in contrast to Carter’s, and still wanted these two lovers to end up together so much. Perhaps the fact that I knew they did, and that even their latter days were the stuff of story books (he died only four months after she did in 2003), had me on their side to begin with. But much credit goes to the performers who make these icons so down to earth and the movie seems less like a heightened reality and more like some couple’s true life meet cute… without the cute.

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