Walk The Line

***

Reviewed by: The Exile

Walk The Line
"The problem is that this glowy, go-down-easy film ends up betraying the very spirit of the Man in Black."

Walk The Line, the title of James Mangold's much anticipated film about country legend Johnny Cash, also happens to be the singer's most ironic song - a declaration of marital fidelity from a man protesting way too much. But the phrase could just as easily sum up the film itself, because Mangold does something Cash himself never did. He plays it safe.

On cue and by the numbers, the familiar tropes are faithfully represented: the hardscrabble childhood, this time in rural Kansas; the loss of a beloved sibling, here Cash's brother, Jack (Lucas Till), to a circle-saw accident; the daddy issues, highlighted by Cash senior (Robert Patrick) muttering, "The devil did this. He took the wrong son!" Then a quick stop in the Air Force alongside Elvis (Tyler Hilton), a starter wife with safe, suburban dreams (Ginnifer Goodwin) and a first child. But it's not long before we see Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) ditch the sales job and high-waisted pants to audition for Sun Records. The remainder of the 136 minutes is spent watching him battle exhaustion, booze, amphetamines, adultery, detox, and his love for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), none of which is permitted to darken the movie's golden promise of a happy ending.

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Only when it dips into Cash's fundamental connection with society's outcasts does Walk The Line touch a nerve. Though Mangold appropriately brackets his film with the historic 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, he fatally neglects to explore why the inmates would have written to Cash in the first place. The lifelong struggle to face down his demons, so apparent in his songs, is what made him so magnetic as a performer and so iconic to the incarcerated. By viewing his subject's life through the redemptive lens of the Cash/Carter love affair, Mangold misses the opportunity to plumb a well of psychic pain. There is a brief glimpse, however, in the film's ominous opening, as Cash waits morosely in the wings at Folsom, listening to the impatient pounding of the excited inmates. The scene, beautifully edited by Michael McCusker (whose exceptional work gave Mangold's Identity much of its power), suggests a more unconventional approach that the director fails to commit to.

Lord knows his stars would have been up for it. Though never the most expressive of actors, Phoenix is stunning here, his sleek movements and measured baritone (both do their own singing) propelling the best, most intense performance of his career. But if Walk The Line receives only one Oscar nomination, it should be for Witherspoon: though terrified of the part (she fought for weeks to get out of her contract when she discovered there would be no lip-synching), she is absolutely sensational as the quick-witted, no-nonsense June. For years now, she has consistently delivered the kind of effortlessly natural work that's rarely singled out for awards but which inevitably improves even the worst of her films (Legally Blonde 2). Here, she's perfect, and her scenes with Phoenix have a teasing chemistry that cements the film. As they perform a lovely duet of It Ain't Me, Babe, they make Dylan's sly attack on romantic illusion sound like it had been written with them in mind.

Based on Cash and Patrick Carr's book, Cash: An Autobiography, and Cash's own The Man In Black, Walk The Line takes no liberties with the facts. Sadly, Mangold, an unpredictable director equally capable of excellence (Cop Land) and silliness (Kate & Leopold), never uses those facts to plumb the mystery of the man himself. Perhaps the strain of representing 18-certificate material in a 12A format was just too much, and it was probably unrealistic to expect the film to be anything more than Ray for white people.

The problem is that this glowy, go-down-easy film ends up betraying the very spirit of the Man in Black - the outlaw soul who never walked any line but his own.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2006
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Johnny Cash biopic that feels the lurve.
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Read more Walk The Line reviews:

Josh Morrall ****
Anton Bitel ***

Director: James Mangold

Writer: Gill Dennis, James Mangold, based on Cash: An Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr and The Man In Black by Johnny Cash

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Payne, Shelby Lynne

Year: 2005

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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