Walk the Line, the new biopic about Johnny and June Carter Cash, is loaded with music, family drama, drug abuse, sentiment, comedy and tragedy. But it’s not about any of those things.
Talent, fame and riches didn’t protect country music’s best-known couple from the blows that afflict us all. Just like us, they seemed to spend their lives alternately rebelling against, and trying to live up to, their parents’ expectations. Director James Mangold’s depiction of the first half of Cash’s life and his relationship with June Carter is, first, about the security-blanket-cum-straitjacket of family. But, most fundamentally, it’s a story of the simultaneously confounding and uplifting, devastating and salvational power of love.
As depicted here, the young Cash tries to be a good husband to his wife Vivian (the effective Ginnifer Goodwin making the best of a fairly thankless role) and daughters, but as his career takes off and he spends more time on the road, his abuse of pills and alcohol turns him into an unpredictable, staggering jerk. Yet his friendship with June Carter, deepening as they tour together, turns gradually and inexorably into the true love which ultimately saves the volatile Cash from himself and the upright Carter from her unfulfilling marriage.
Joaquin Phoenix transforms, with gusto, first into the awkward young singer and thence into the fabled Man in Black, whose common touch and unearthly deep voice made him the Everyman of American music. Though Phoenix pushes the mannerisms a little too far at times, he convinces us that he is the tortured soul who could, in the climactic scene, connect deeply with a crowd of prisoners at the famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert. Reese Witherspoon, in spite of looking a little too young and fresh towards the end, is miraculous as June Carter Cash, who gave as good as or better than she got, stuck by her friend in need, and just happened to write “Ring of Fire” along the way.
Especially notable in the excellent supporting cast are Robert Patrick as the senior Cash – a seething tower of repressed rage – Dallas Roberts as legendary producer Sam Phillips, and Ridge Canipe and Lucas Till as 12-year-old Johnny and his brother Jack. (It’s amazing how good child actors are these days.) T-Bone Burnett’s ghostly, Doors-like score knits the scenes together, the actors do a good job singing the classic songs, and Mangold’s directing style is to stay out of the way and let the taut script and good acting tell the story. And that’s what this is: nothing too fancy, just a damn good yarn. True, it’s about famous people, but their struggles illuminate our own. The songs which Johnny Cash and the Carter Family before him sang so plainly and richly did the same – and still do, if we take the time to listen. When it comes down to it, it’s all about love – its presence, its absence, the troubles it makes for us and the rescues it alone can effect. Not just interesting, the story this movie tells so well might even serve as an inspiration to aspiring singers, songwriters, couples, and struggling human beings everywhere.