James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic runs along fairly conventional lines, but it’s made with admirable conviction and clarity of purpose. Walk the Line’s script provides its actors a solid backbone, running from Cash’s rural roots during which he became forever scarred with guilt and grief over his older brother’s death, to his stardom in the 50s and 60s as a maverick country music/rock ‘n’ roll singer/songwriter melding streetwise and inspirational lyricism.
As for the leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, their immersion into their roles is mesmerizing. Witherspoon as June Carter is a marvel to watch; she doesn’t miss a beat, so to speak, in every moment of her performance. Her scenes performing on stage with Phoenix’s Johnny Cash are all brilliant. I found the chemistry between the two electric throughout — this is critical to our experience of what is, at heart, a love story.
Mangold uses shorthand pop psychology to anchor his characterization of Cash — a man constantly haunted by feelings of inferiority, inflicted upon him by his father (Patrick) in the wake of his brother’s tragic death. As pat as this seems, it’s still effective in anchoring the Cash we see here — a brilliant talent constantly sabotaging his own success with destructive behavior involving drugs and boozing. June Carter, then, becomes his muse, his redemption, the angel who saves him from a miserable first marriage, his devastated self-esteem vis-à-vis his father, and restores his faith in himself. More than a tribute to Cash himself, Walk the Line is a wonderful affirmation of love, of finding your soul mate, and of Cash’s spiritual strength which guided him through some bleak existential terrain.
Terrific performances and a writer-director working completely in the service of sincere material make what could’ve been a by-the-numbers biopic into a consistently engaging journey. Impressive work.
Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Gill Dennis, James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Tyler Hilton