U.S. Release Date: November 18, 2005
Distributor: Fox
Director: James Mangold
Writer: James Mangold
Producer: James Keach, Cathy Konrad
Cast: Lucas Till, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)

Johnny Cash Picture Needs Another Verse
by Scott Holleran

Joaquin Phoenix as drug-addicted country singer Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as singer June Carter generate enough electricity to power much, though not most, of Walk the Line, director James Mangold's take on Cash's early career. Despite the sparks, something is out of sync.

It is not the music, though Cash's country and western twang is a steady whine. His toe-tappin' tunes tell his story—framed by Cash's famous 1968 jailhouse recording, At Folsom Prison—and it's the familiar tale of a man gone wrong struggling to make things go right. Cash was an addict and the abuse imprint was left early in life—by his father (Robert Patrick), who pulverized the boy's self-esteem.

Exiting his grueling childhood, marred by the tragic death of his brother, Cash joins the Air Force, where he discovers a receptacle for his repressed rage. He starts playing guitar, strumming and scribbling tunes about being down so low he could kill a man. At this point, he makes himself into an outcast, ready to take on every authority figure from his pap to the police and the U.S. Air Force.

When he gets home, he impregnates and marries a middle class girl (Ginnifer Goodwin) and goes door to door just to get by, but nobody is buying from this sad sack. Trying to pay the rent, he hustles his way into an audition and almost blows it, singing church songs instead of what's on his mind. In the best scene, producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) breaks it to him not so gently, daring young Cash to believe in himself half as much as he professes to believe in God. Cash literally changes his tune.

On the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, June Carter (whose family was a Christian singing troupe) and Elvis Presley, shown doing drugs right out of Mississippi, Cash courts the feisty, quick-minded June—he'd been a fan since childhood—and he tries to woo her for the rest of the movie. She has her own problems, including a couple of failed marriages, but Mangold labors over Cash's chronic choice to drink, do drugs and notch one-night stands and he overindulges, leaving little room for anything else.

Witherspoon as June Carter retains her soft but strong-willed persona and Phoenix inhabits rather than impersonates Cash. He swaggers like the star but keeps his performance focused, portraying Cash as a man who recovered through the love of a good, strong woman, when he wasn't intoxicated, which wasn't very often. Phoenix connects with Witherspoon, they both sing well, and, at their best, the pair captures the mettle that makes a marriage. She calmed him—he challenged her and they were friends before becoming lovers.

It's too bad Mangold doesn't probe deeper—or explore their relationship for longer than a few seconds at a time. Though Phoenix and Witherspoon are good, Walk the Line doesn't quite close the loop.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Reviewed in single-disc edition, Walk the Line, though lacking a deeper examination of Johnny Cash's self-destructive actions, is powerful on its own terms and better on a second viewing.

Chalk that up to co-writer and director James Mangold—whose audio commentary is definitely worth activating—and his Cal Arts writing teacher, Gill Dennis, who show a sharp understanding of music, addiction and relationships. Mangold's comments tell an intriguing story—beginning by writing an image, with inspiration from Elia Kazan's East of Eden and overlaying the picture's theme of second chances.

Ending with a plea that moviegoers see pictures about "the lives we lead" if they want them to be made, as against more mindless remakes with tasteless jokes or idiotic action pics, Mangold's commentary is both challenging and illuminating.

For example, Mangold discusses presenting the music organically, as if it had come from the world around Jerry Lee, Elvis and Johnny Cash. He prefers letting the viewer figure out who famous singers are and using wider two-shots, and he explains how he used the camera to make the diner scene work, which it does (it's what seals Johnny and June's bond).

Mangold describes telling a story as peeling an onion, he credits the Carter family's role in saving Cash, he talks about working with Cash and it's a pleasure to share in his enthusiasm. While he's too hard on the music that preceded rock and roll—knocking pop standards as boring—he steers clear of the usual obsequious chatter.

Ten deleted scenes are more like extended scenes, mixed with material that's in the movie, available with Mangold's brief introductions, and they include a cameo from John Carter Cash—Johnny and June's first born child—as a disc jockey and more about Cash's early life in Memphis. Overall, it is good to have Walk the Line on DVD, to pop in and remind us that love, through it all, is a burning thing.

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