Movie review: 'Walk the Line'

MoviesEntertainmentCelebritiesCrime, Law and JusticeJails and PrisonsJohnny CashJoaquin Phoenix

3 stars (out of four)

You won't go out humming the filmmaking, but "Walk the Line" showcases two of this year's most vivid screen performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, the man in black with the voice that sounded like 10-to-life. As his wife, Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter, the good Christian woman—Cash once described her as "a prayer warrior like none I've known"—who saw her man through a pharmaceutical ring of fire and a lifelong streak of self-destruction.

Based on Cash's two autobiographies, "Walk the Line" walks a line of its own. On one side lies a gorge littered with cliches, ripped (by buzzards) from the hides of all the hackneyed musical biopics of yore: "Bird," "Beyond the Sea," the draggiest parts of "Ray." On the other side of the line lies an artist's idea of the truth behind a famous life, along with the thing that is better than truth: genuine dramatic vitality.

Director and co-writer James Mangold stays clear of the gorge, for the most part. At its best his film carries the emotional urgency of "Coal Miner's Daughter," the Loretta Lynn biopic of a generation ago. Relaying its version of how Cash met, wooed, disappointed and finally married Carter, in between hits and flops and Benzedrine, "Walk the Line" does require you to put up with some whitewash and hogwash, the two most common ingredients in the biopic genre. Yet the actors dig beneath the semi-glossy surface.

Phoenix is first-rate and scarily committed in the role of an Arkansas sharecropper's son. The actor contributes his own vocals in pretty fair Cash-esque voice, though his sound is lighter and higher, lacking the original's rumbling authority. (Sometimes he recalls Jim Morrison.) But Phoenix is mesmerizing, even in throwaway moments. He captures the intrinsic contradictions of a singer and writer hungry for fame, ambivalent about its costs, a guilty mess when it came to his home life.

Witherspoon acquits herself equally well in a more reactive role. It takes a real actress to play a down-home saint and not make you sick.

Spanning 24 years, "Walk the Line" opens with a black crow—symbolism!—picking at a garbage drum outside California's Folsom Prison. It is 1968. We hear the Cash band vamping, endlessly, on a makeshift stage while the anxious headliner, in black, confines himself in the prison wood shop. He runs one hand lightly over a fearsome-looking saw blade.

A memory is triggered, and "Walk the Line" jumps back to 1944 and the cotton fields of Arkansas. There, young Cash, known as J.R. (Ridge Canipe), sweats with his siblings under the stern eye of their hard-drinking father, Ray (Robert Patrick), and the more loving gaze of their mother, hymn-soaked Carrie (country star Shelby Lynne). A fatal buzzsaw accident takes the life of J.R.'s older brother. The devil, claims the grieving father, took the wrong boy.

Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis move fleetly through the years the wrong boy becomes a young man. An Air Force radio operator stationed in early 1950s Germany, Cash the budding musician writes an early version of "Folsom Prison Blues." In Memphis, he fails at being a salesman and nearly flubs an audition for Sun Records' Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts, dry as dust) until he ditches the gospel audition piece and tries his own material on for size. "Cry, Cry, Cry" becomes a hit. In short order Cash's first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), spits out four kids and wonders why her husband has to tour so much.

The movie implies, at least indirectly, that Cash went clean after marrying Carter. Not true; he struggled much of the rest of his life with addiction and its after-effects. This brings up the question of fact. In "Walk the Line," there are moments when you don't fully buy the tenor of an exchange. Such moments have little to do with what did or didn't actually happen to Cash. He did, for example, propose to Carter on a stage in front of thousands of fans. The scene has been turned into the dramatic climax of "Walk the Line" and it feels hoked-up—a Hollywood lie that happens to be factually true.

The script has its familiarities, shall we say. It also has its strengths, among them a knack for knowing when to let silence take over and when to let the music do the talking. Mangold doesn't manhandle the audience. He allows scenes to roll by to a nice, lifelike rhythm, whether following Cash and company on the road or observing the struggle to re-engage at home. "Walk the Line" may shave one too many dangerous edges off its volatile subject's personality, but it's Mangold's best-directed film to date, hearkening back to the low-keyed but effective character study "Heavy," his first feature.

Under the end credits, the real Cash and Carter sing "Long Legged Guitar Pickin' Man." Those were voices, exquisite and soulful, with Carter's vocal hop-skips complementing the Cash voice of hard times and reckless living. It doesn't matter much that Phoenix and Witherspoon sound more like Phoenix and Witherspoon than Cash and Carter. The chemistry is there. The actors walk their own line, successfully, between their adoration of two iconic entertainers, one bigger and weaker than the other, and the flinty insight Phoenix and Witherspoon offer into what made them tick away from the spotlight.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Walk the Line'

Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Gill Dennis and Mangold, based on Johnny Cash's autobiographies; cinematography by Phedon Papamichael; production design by David J. Bomba; music by T Bone Burnett; edited by Michael McCusker; produced by Cathy Konrad and James Keach. A Fox 2000 Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:13. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency).

Johnny Cash - Joaquin Phoenix

June Carter - Reese Witherspoon

Vivian Cash - Ginnifer Goodwin

Ray Cash - Robert Patrick

Sam Phillips - Dallas Roberts

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesEntertainmentCelebritiesCrime, Law and JusticeJails and PrisonsJohnny CashJoaquin Phoenix
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