From start to finish, Walk the Line is not the average biopic. Rather than focus on the musical success of Johnny Cash and the rigors his success entailed, director James Mangold chose to focus on the individual relationships that molded Cash into The Man in Black.
The film begins in Folsom Prison in California, the theme of one of Cash’s first songs about a man sent to jail for murder. Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, sits backstage as the prison pulsates in anticipation for the encore. Cash thumbs the blade of a power saw, foreshadowing a flashback to his childhood.
Cash grew up in rural Arkansas on a farm with his alcoholic father, Ray Cash, played convincingly by Robert Patrick, who favored Johnny’s brother Jack.
Following a power saw accident that kills Jack, we flash forward to Cash in the Air Force during the Korean War. While stationed in Germany, Cash purchases his first guitar and, after seeing a short film about Folsom Prison, writes the tune that inspired his live performance at Folsom.With a meagerly talented band, Cash finds success with his songwriting and the unique sound he developed. Fame comes quick, and Cash is on the road constantly. This is when the world starts to fall apart around him.
One of the driving themes of the film is love, or lack thereof. His early marriage to Vivian Cash, with whom he had three children, is tested by her need for Cash’s success and her constant degrading comments toward him.
As Vivian and Cash grow apart, he grows closer to fellow tour mate June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon, who turns in the most astounding performance of the film as a woman torn between her faith in marriage and God and her growing attraction to Cash.
The chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon is what sets the film apart from other biopics. As Cash and Carter, they teeter along the fine line of separating their work and their private lives. For every instance that Cash wants to abandon everything for Carter, she is equally as distant, never giving in to Cash’s constant advances. The rejection sends Cash into a downward spiral. After his wife leaves him, Cash’s growing addiction to pills gets out of hand. Some of the finest moments in the film take place when nothing is said.
After spending months alone in his large house, Cash invites his parents and June’s family to Thanksgiving.
Cash and his father stare at each other with contempt. Cash, always trying to gain the acceptance of his father, breaks down and confronts his him. Ray Cash, with a cold stare, explains how after everything Cash has done he has nothing to show for it, just addiction and loneliness. What consumes Cash is his belief that the people around him do not love him.
What redeems Cash is Carter. She shows him how to get back on his feet. They refuse to let time pass them by and eventually, because of constant badgering by Cash, decide to marry. The film ends where it began in Folsom Prison with the live performance.
Walk the Line accomplishes what Beyond the Sea and Ray could not: It exploits the human condition by showing the depths of loneliness and longing. Ultimately, Cash yearned for love and managed to push it away in the process. Mangold channels this progression through Witherspoon and Phoenix and does it successfully.
Grade: A-Drama, Running time: 2 hours andÃ 13 minutes, ratedÃ PG-13