November 21, 2005

Walk the Line3 1/2 Stars

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Cheap hotels, inordinate amounts of smoke, fountains of alcohol, infidelity, high-end pricks, frenzied fans, drugs, corruption and tempers. Sound familiar? It will if you’ve seen every other biopic. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as all genre movies are formulaic to a certain extent. Next time I’ve got to remember this cinematic truism: biopics are inherently myopic.

The one thing that does distinguish (familiarize?) Walk the Line, however, are the stupendous performances. Reese Witherspoon is perfect as the bubbly spitfire June Carter – a great complement to Joaquin Phoenix’s insouciant, troubled Johnny Cash. Phoenix doesn’t just embody Cash – he is Johnny Cash. While watching the film, I thought that was actually Johnny Cash up on…Ah!! Make it stop!

OK, check up another truism: reviews of biopics are inherently myopic.

Enough with my flippancy – Walk the Line is a rousing, interesting, fun bit of cinema that still leaves something to be desired. I am sincere in my praise of Witherspoon and Phoenix; in fact, they are what keep the film chugging along when it gets lost in some of the denser woods of the biographical forest. To watch Phoenix rip through “Ring of Fire” or “Folsom Prison Blues” is to experience temporal displacement. And like the auto-harp she strums, Witherspoon hits all the right notes as Cash’s impatient, but enduringly faithful, darling clementine.

As I said, Cash’s life story is strikingly familiar to those who have watched other biopics about musicians or movie stars. The tragic loss of his brother when Cash was twelve had a devastating and lifelong effect on the musician. As did his tempestuous relationship with his cold, proud father. Cash was alre ady married and had a kid (with another one on the way) when June became the apple of his eye. And most interestingly, Cash, the Man in Black, was in many ways a pariah in the recording and social world. The director (James Mangold) couldn’t have changed the facts, but I wish he had dealt with them in a more original way.

The film missteps at several points. It is choppy in the beginning and the story needs to be significantly streamlined. There are some heavy-handed moments, as when Cash, peaked from excessive drug and alcohol use, is lying in the back yard in a hammock as a vulture-like bird circles overhead. And we don’t have too read too closely between the lines when his father complains about the “big ole expensive tractor stuck in the mud” at Cash’s home. The relationship between Cash and his father is dealt with awkwardly, and the film ends abruptly. Finally, Mangold ignores what should be a cardinal rule of cinema: if the movie is not based around or heavily involved with kids, limit their screen time as much as possible.

However, the film is redeemed by the performances. Two of the best scenes consist of Cash performing – in front of a record producer and famously at Folsom Prison – and Phoenix nails them. I was fully aware that an actor was mimicking Cash’s mouth-swings and guitar-twanging and heart-on-sleeve, larger-than-life presence. But I was in awe of this proxy and had a kind of otherworldly shock into post-film state of mind in which I knew I would always remember that performance.

Other than a few I’m-too-cool-for-that moments, I think Cash would be proud. Then again, I don’t really know him – even with all the knowledge that I garnered from this movie. And that is the major accomplishment of the film: it brings him close enough to Earth for us to be able to make assumptions, but still keeps him eternally, enigmatically the Man in Black.

Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Staff Writer