Arriving two years after the death of June Carter and Johnny Cash, 2005’s Walk the Line is not just a Cash biopic, because the true point of focus throughout is the tumultuous yet endearing relationship between the two country stars. Directed by the diversely talented James Mangold (who also co-wrote the script), Walk the Line spans across roughly four decades, from Cash’s difficult childhood in Arkansas, to the legendary concert at Folsom State Prison in 1968.
Considering the movie is about Johnny Cash, it is obviously important that the music behind the legend is tastefully addressed, and that’s certainly not a problem here. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do all the singing throughout the film; and it does say something that the soundtrack to the film featuring their musical performances won a Grammy and was a great success. Phoenix and Witherspoon treat the material respectfully, not trying to imitate Cash and Carter, but instead injecting the songs with their own vocal stylings.
The film opens with a shot of the enigmatic “Man in Black” in 1968 before his Folsom State Prison performance, as he glances at a table saw. Then begins a flashback which takes us back to Arkansas in 1944, where Cash and his brother Jack are raised in a family of cotton pickers. The evangelical Jack is the favorite of father Ray (Robert Patrick), while Cash has a penchant for hymns and sings like his mother. A tragic table saw accident causes Jack to die young, scarring Cash for much of his life.
The film then skips to 1952, where Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) joins the Air Force and is stationed in Germany. It is there where his love for guitar playing and songwriting begins.
After coming home, he marries girlfriend Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), though Cash’s love for music and lack of a stable income becomes a constant source of tension between the two. Cash gets his break with Sun Records, however, and with “Folsom Prison Blues” he finally lands a contract with the Tennessee Two, consisting of Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. They go on a tour in 1955 with a now-legendary roster including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings, and finally, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).
Much of the film details the ups and downs of Cash’s ’60s period, where his increasing success (including the iconic “Ring of Fire”) obscures personal problems that include his failing marriage, his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his unrequited feelings for Carter. Through this whirlwind of drama, you are bound to realize that too much is happening too often, and every scene is a crucial reflection, and that’s because the filmmakers are trying to pack 40 years into a cohesive storyline. This may be problematic for those who feel the film is too formulaic, but it doesn’t really hinder it much because the performances are so raw.
Phoenix and Witherspoon received some of the best attention of their careers with this film, and it’s not hard to see why. Phoenix positively shines in his best role, infusing the persona of Cash with his physical vulnerability. Throughout the film, Cash is haunted emotionally by the ghost of his brother, something surely Phoenix can relate to on some level. It’s that same haunting that also drives Cash to become as great as he did, and Phoenix gives the same kind of effort into his performance. Witherspoon is most surprising of all, winning an Oscar for Best Actress in 2005 in her complex and natural performance as Carter. She could have approached the role much more safely, but she assumes the skin of Carter and the resulting chemistry between the two is believable.
It would have been interesting to see a bit more of Carter and Cash’s relationship with their spouses, to give a better picture of why they were driven to each other. Sometimes it feels like the plot is moving forward too quickly, as relationships are make and break back and forth. Considering the film is already 135-minutes, however, it’s not surprising that things had to be streamlined for mainstream consumption. None of this really deters from the enjoyment of the film, but it does make one wonder how things could have been done differently. Nonetheless, by the time the sequences at Folsom Prison and the sweet duet of “Jackson” hit you at the end, it will be difficult not to be immersed in the storytelling.
For the Blu-ray release of Walk the Line, 20th Century Fox packed the disc nicely with a stellar high-def transfer and a great selection of audio choices (including DTS-HD Master Audio). There’s also an extensive inclusion of bonus features compiled from the previously released two-disc DVD, such as extended musical sequences, deleted scenes, commentary by Mangold, and a few featurettes that give background on Cash and Carter, as well as the production of the film. There may not be anything specific to the Blu-ray release but it does make things convenient to have everything on one disc.
Audiences new to country music or Cash’s history need not worry about feeling alienated, because the film has great music, themes, and a true love story that isn’t saccharine sweet. Cash’s tale is told in the usual redemptive fashion, but there’s a lot of depth and complexity to the characters that make his journey feel universal. With marvelous performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon, Walk the Line fortunately goes above and beyond typical music biopics to produce a thoughtful and memorable film.