A Burning Thing
But I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.
—Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
John R. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hard-drinking, drug-abusing, soul-searching, all-black-wearing, June-Carter-loving man. And yet, for all his swagger and rage, he is, in legend, in Mark Romanek’s stunning video for “Hurt,” and here again in James Mangold’s Walk the Line, a vulnerable, torn-up man. His abuses of himself and others are here turned into the stuff of biopic, functions of fury, frustration, and fear.
Not incidentally, they are also functions of his devotion to June, played by Reese Witherspoon, and first heard as a child singer on the 12-year-old JR’s radio. The boy runs into immediate trouble when his earnest love for June conflicts with his self-destructive desperation to please his hard-ass father Ray (Robert Patrick). In Walk the Line, all that will, eventually, make young JR the Man in Black is established early, revisited periodically, and tied up too neatly.
Predictably showcasing high and low points, the film draws direct lines between personal ordeals and their emotional fallouts (lots of pill-taking scenes to mark emotional downturns, with Phoenix’s face in addict-as-cadaver makeup). All biopics impose beginnings and endings onto messy life stories, and this one wrestles the man’s unfigurable contradictions and passions into a typical, palatable shape: the movie opens on Cash looking haunted by the trauma of his brother’s death and closes on a happy note (John’s proposal to June on stage), and then drops an epigraph that Cash had 35 more years to endure before he and June died within four months of one another.
Their mutual attachment helps to make Johnny’s equally infamous carousing and orneriness less abrasive. The film’s version of the volatile relationship between Cash and the generous, god-fearing, self-judging June paints a good-woman-behind-a-great-man portrait (the script is drawn from Cash’s two autobiographies, Cash: The Autobiography and The Man in Black). But while June appears mostly as he knows her, without a life of her own, the odd scene shows her apart—driving home to see her children alone, in tears at the sin she’s committing in loving this man who’s not her husband; or writing “Ring of Fire,” the song she would give him to sing, that described her own feelings about their burning love.
Their on-screen relationship dates back to his childhood, when he listens to 10-year-old June on the radio and angers his father. With the Good June-Bad Daddy nexus in place, the film traces little JR’s yearnings in the most rudimentary way: at 12, he picks cotton on his father’s Dyes, Arkansas farm in 1944, learns hymnals out of his mother’s book, and dotes on his older brother Jack (Lucas Till). The trauma-that-becomes-life-crushing-guilt occurs when little JR leaves Jack to work a circle-saw one Saturday afternoon (even after seeing the machine is faulty), then holds his hand in hospital while Jack dies, bloody, pasty white, and eternally “good.”
Ray blames his “wrong son” JR (“You’re nothin’!”), and the boy pursues music, in a roundabout way. He leaves home to join the Air Force, then buys his first guitar while stationed in Germany in 1955. (The dead brother story begs comparison to Ray Charles’, as do the two films’ structural similarities.) While in the Air Force, Johnny sees a newsreel about Folsom Prison, feels a kinship with the inmates, and writes “Folsom Prison Blues,” the song with the dicey lyrics (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”) that convinces Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) to sign him. Johnny’s eventual decision to record at the prison and embrace his inmate fans is framed here as an effort to revive a flagging career, but also a heartfelt appreciation of those fans, their hardship and sorrow.
Cash’s first hit is “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in keeping with the pop-country mode so popular at the time. A savvy songwriter and distinctive performer, Cash invents his own art even as he tries to fit in with Sun Records lablemates Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton). He meets June on a Sun Records tour when both are married to others, the attraction instant and mutual. This even though (or because), as she notes, he’s in need of mothering (she rejects this role, even as he drunkenly suggests that what she’s really trying to fight off is their sexual connection.
Walk the Line‘s mythologizing of Johnny Cash is never very surprising (though Phoenix’s performance is frequently remarkable). As he’s plainly in love with June, he’s also married to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), her role limited to First Wife, resenting his absence and addictions to amphetamines and alcohol. At the same time, June appears increasingly vibrant and seductive, her demands clearly unselfish, her needs of a piece with his own. She supports her man in all circumstances, even when she finds Johnny and their Sun Records tour mates sloppy drunk and throws beer bottles at them (“We surrender!”).
Her support is made visual in several scenes, as when she literally pulls Johnny out of a lake following a wrenching Thanksgiving upheaval (he drives a tractor into the lake) and sits in the back of the room during his famous live Folsom Prison recording in 1968. As the camera changes focus from his ravaged face on stage, beloved by his inmate audience, to hers, composed and stalwart, utterly dedicated, her quiet strength is as evident as his connection with the inmates.
June suffers her own anguish as well, largely emerging from her faith (her briefly seen father seems only supportive of her role as Johnny’s savior, then chasing off a drug dealer with a shotgun). At one point, June and Cash both shop, separately, in a tour-stop sundries store: June is accosted by a woman (June’s divorces make her a poor Christian; her work takes her away from her young daughter), at which point she turns to aid the apparently helpless Johnny pick out a gift for his daughter. As they try to make sense of their mutual attraction, proper distance, and efforts to parent from afar, they’re caught in the children’s toys and books aisle. The film cuts to a moment of seeming freedom, promise, and even some nostalgia, as June teaches Johnny to cast his expensive fishing rod: they come close, pull apart, and go back on the road.
Even as Johnny makes it hard to love him, June’s dedication is admirable and profound. It makes all the difference, as the film loves their glorious duets (several thrilling moments, as when Witherspoon and Phoenix sing Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in romanticized, halo-lit two-shots) and returns repeatedly to her moral and emotional schooling. Throughout the film, as in that extraordinary video for “Hurt,” June’s gaze makes Johnny seem inspired and exceptional. It’s a familiar story, the good woman who stands by her man. And it’s tantalizing too, suggesting that another, perhaps less typical story might be found in June’s life.