Cash’s Story Draws a Fine Line
It’s been said that every great love story has its own particular body count. The epic courtship of Johnny Cash and June Carter was no exception, and though the number of casualties was remarkably low, it was a violent conflict, and it’s undeniable that were it not for June Carter, Cash himself would’ve been lost in the process. People have spoken millions of words about the Man in Black, but it was always apparent that nothing mattered more to the man himself than his 35-year marriage to Carter. It’s appropriate, then, that the first Cash story to hit the big screen would be less about his career than the woman who saved it.
If you count the years since its inception, Walk the Line has been a decade in the making, and it’s clearly been time well-spent: the film is a testament to the fact that a biopic can be successful if it sticks to one cardinal rule: find your story and stick to it. The biggest problem I had with Michael Mann’s brilliant but ultimately frustrating Ali was that it was just too ambitious, attempting to chronicle the entire career of an American icon in about two hours. Walk the Line could’ve easily fallen into that trap ‘— was there an uninteresting part of Johnny Cash’s life? ‘— but it wins out because director James Mangold (Identity; Girl, Interrupted) resists the temptation to squeeze it all in, focusing instead on the turbulent genesis of country music’s first superstar.
It’s almost redundant to point out how influential and important Cash’s recordings became, and one of the smartest things Walk the Line does is de-emphasize his stardom. Though the film is packed with musical performances, Johnny Cash the Icon takes a back seat to Johnny Cash the lovelorn drug addict, and the film feels intimate and honest as a result.
In short, believe the hype on this one: the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are fantastic. The pair has already garnered wide praise for doing their own singing, and the accolades are well-deserved. Phoenix fills a tall order, capturing the subtlety of one of the most distinct voices in the history of rock n’ roll, and though he already favors a young Cash, he works overtime to bring out the details that ingrained the Man in Black in the public consciousness. It’s as thrilling as you’d expect to watch Cash evolve from a reluctant, reticent performer he was into the electrifying rock star he eventually became.
Walk the Line tells a beautiful story, and the surest indicator of its adherence to Cash’s vision is the portrayal of June Carter. If Cash is the villain ‘— and in his mind he surely was, especially during the slow collapse of his first marriage ‘— then Carter is the hero, a tough little flower who refuses to whither in the presence of the Sun Studio boys’ club with whom she tours. Twice divorced by the time she married Cash, Carter resisted her future husband’s advances at every turn, in part because of the shame she felt at her other publicly failed relationships (one interesting aspect of the film is that it takes the time to examine what it meant for a woman to be divorced in the early 1960s).
Witherspoon, in what may be her best performance yet, captures the inherent strength of her character while preserving the vulnerability that proves irresistible to Cash. Audiences will come to the film to see Phoenix execute his note-perfect sneer, but more than a few viewers will be shocked to find that Witherspoon is really the star of the show.
Walk the Line, which has already been called a sure bet for the Oscars, is nevertheless in danger of being over-praised. It happened to Ray ‘— by the time I saw it, I had already heard from approximately 10 million people how great it was, and I was more than a little surprised to find that it didn’t really have an ending. And no doubt, by the time Walk the Line’s creative team walks away with its portion of little gold statues, the backlash against the film will have begun in earnest.
Let it come, I say ‘— Cash can take it. At the end of the day, Walk the Line is a fitting tribute to a man who stood by his convictions, accepted his faults, and marched gracefully into old age. It’s a warts-and-all portrait, and it’s that rare biopic that truly captures the essence of its subject.
Glen Baity once shot a man in Fargo just to watch him die. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.