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Cry, Cry, Cry

 

Walk the Line

James Mangold, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.0

 

Posted: November 21, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's not surprising that James Mangold ("Cop Land," "Girl, Interrupted") chose to hang his biopic of Johnny Cash on the love story between Cash and his second wife, June Carter. Certainly, theirs is an enduring (and endearing) love story, and she gets most of the credit for taming the beast inside the legendary singer. Were it not for her, conventional wisdom has it, Cash might never have grown into the iconic "Man in Black" remembered so fondly today. We get the sense today that without June, Cash's demons might have consumed him long before his time, leaving just another James Dean or Kurt Cobain -- a great talent reduced to "what might have been" speculation instead of a respected musician with a strong body of work, an artist who kept surprising listeners right up until the end.

Unfortunately, Walk the Line leaves us with a different impression: that Cash was just a self-pitying boor who turned to drugs and alcohol because he couldn't have the woman he wanted. That's not an indictment of Joaquin Phoenix's performance in the lead role -- although lacking both the singer's intimidating physical stature and his granite voice, he fills Cash's larger-than-life boots as well as anyone could hope to, and he projects a not-so-tightly-coiled intensity that certainly approximates his subject's inner turmoil. He even holds his own singing Cash's songs live, wisely avoiding straight caricature. (Witherspoon shines in this area, as well, although other actors -- most notably Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley and Waylon Malloy Payne as a grating Jerry Lee Lewis ---- don't fare as well.)

No, where Walk the Line falters is in convincing us that Phoenix's Cash was a man worth saving. It's not difficult to see what Carter (winningly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) sees in the dashing Cash early on; as he storms through "Get Rhythm" during one early concert scene, he's a magnetic performer. But we begin to wonder why she continues to tour with him when he's clearly on the road to self-destruction, and he's given her a starring role in his own codependent psychodrama. (His first wife Vivian, played stoically by Ginnifer Goodwin in a thankless role, leaves him after he drunkenly insists on hanging pictures of Carter all over their house.)

To be fair, we are given glimpses of a troubled early life -- Johnny blames himself for the death of his sainted brother, as does his imperious, distant father (Robert Patrick) -- that contributes to Cash's fragile state. But that never quite translates into making this Cash a relatable, sympathetic figure. Hell, except for one early scene of Cash in the Air Force, writing what would become "Folsom Prison Blues," we never even get a glimpse of the artist that all that turmoil produced. Once Cash and the Tennessee Two cut their first single for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, we're asked to take his hit records and rise to fame more or less on faith.

Too often in Walk the Line, we're asked to use our own knowledge of the Man in Black to color in the areas the film leaves unshaded. While this works during the surprisingly decent concert scenes (which double as dramatic moments -- Mangold wisely makes sure there's always a key story beat unfolding onstage along with the music), it's far less effective in gaining an understanding of Cash's talent, his volatile personality or his love for June -- to say nothing of why she loves him back. There's no mistaking that Walk the Line loves its subject, but it just assumes that we do, as well, and thus doesn't work hard enough to convince us the way drama should. It falls into its own burning ring of fire, but never invites us to follow.

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 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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