From the Archive: Walk the Line

As I’ve noted before, 2005 was the year that I took advantage of the bountiful blank page afforded me by the interweb and started writing movie reviews again. I tend to to think of it as a relatively slow development process, from noodling around to full-length reviews. But it seems I got to the destination a little more quickly than I remember, as this take on the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, written just a few months after I’d recommitted to writing about movies, has a hearty word count.

There are two moments in the new Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line that gave me chills in the way that only the greatest movie moments can. The first is the opening credits sequence. Director James Mangold begins with the Folsom Prison concert that would yield what many argue is the greatest album of Cash’s career.

As Cash’s music pounds on the soundtrack, Mangold gradually takes us deeper and deeper into the prison with a series of staggered shots that bring the foreboding weight of the institution down upon the viewer. Eventually, we reach the actual concert, where a packed hall of prisoners is roaring their collective approval at the sustained growl of the music coming from the stage as Cash’s band plays with rigid professionalism and just a hint of rattled nerves. This simple but brilliantly effective introduction properly conveys the power of music, this man’s music in particular. No matter how strong the steel bars that argue otherwise, this music, at this place and time, made these men feel free.

The second moment comes when Cash sits at a diner counter and talks with June Carter about his deceased brother, Jack. As Cash, Joaquin Phoenix speaks of the enduring sense of loss he feels with an emotional gravity and honest sense of spontaneity of a sort previously unseen in his film work. This small piece of acting is so achingly real that I’d swear the name he held in his head that moment wasn’t “Jack,” but “River.”

That’s not to imply that this moment betrays the created confines of the film’s world, abruptly becoming more about Joaquin than Johnny. In fact, Phoenix is locked in throughout the film. Like David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck., Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and, yes, Jamie Foxx in last year’s Ray, Phoenix takes on the familiar physicality and vocal cadences of his well-known character, but resists the trap of turning in an impression instead of a performance (for the counter-example, see Will Smith in Ali.) He digs into the man, trying to convey his deeper self, trying to capture the conflicts in his soul. It’s debatable whether the final result is wholly accurate, but it always feels right.

In many ways, Phoenix laps the very film he’s in. You always sense the actor pushing for more and Mangold giving him less. Walk the Line is a frustratingly conventional film. It’s not just that the arc of Cash’s life–childhood tragedy to early career struggles to professional breakthrough to drug-fueled descent to redemption–will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any other biographical films about entertainers (or an episode of Behind the Music), its that Mangold has structured the film as predictably as a three-chord country song. Remaining true to the facts of Cash’s life hardly mandates the inclusion of a standard-issue music montage meant to efficiently depict his career ascent.

Settling for the most predictable path also shortchanges Mangold’s greatest strength as a filmmaker: his keen attention to details. The first part of the film is filled with scenes that are gripping in their well-observed simplicity. Johnny’s audition for Sam Phillips holds a palpable sense of tension, thanks in no small part to the excellent, if brief, performance by Dallas Roberts as the Sun Records impresario. And the early concert scenes effectively spark off the sense of a budding legend carefully competing with fellow budding legends like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Phoenix handles the singing chores and does an admirable job of meeting (if not matching) Cash’s original versions. Even more impressive is Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, nailing the twangy melody of Carter’s voice and the jubilant showmanship of her onstage cornpone humor.

Witherspoon is less effective as the film goes on and, in the script, June Carter becomes less of an original and more of a stock love interest. Mangold clearly means to distinguish his film by making it about the lengthy, troubled courtship of Johnny and June. But there’s no resonance to their relationship onscreen. Witherspoon loses the complexity of her character and starts simply responding to the emotional turmoil surrounding her. Phoenix makes Cash’s wounded, troubled yearning for June Carter as real as steel, but we get little sense, through story or performance, of what drew Carter to Cash. Phoenix is left singing a duet alone, and the result is a film that’s is sleek on the surface but disappointingly hollow.