“Walk The Line” is not a Johnny Cash movie.
It is a June Carter movie.
Yes, Joaquin Phoenix flawlessly captures the country singer’s onstage intensity, his childish giddiness, how he holds his guitar like a rifle, his obsessiveness with June, the signature grim look on his face.
Yes, the movie follows him from his childhood days, chronicling his successes as a folk singer, recounting how he wrote his songs and how he got that deep baritone voice and that two-step sound that was as “steady as a train.”
It goes as far as showing us amusing glimpses of his tour buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, and even hints at Cash’s own insecurities as an artist in the presence of these soon-to-be giants.
The problem is, the main plot threads that involve solely “The Man In Black” are like a shotgun misfiring: cluttered, uneasy, and misdirected. The points they try to make are hit and miss, and Phoenix’s Cash aimlessly ricochets about from one milestone to the next.
In truth, Cash’s early life was rather humdrum. “Songs are easy,” he says, and so is the rest of his career, taking the standard route most “rockstars” take, complete with groupies, cancelled tour dates and the ubiquitous drug addiction.
“People work it out for you,” he is told.
Enter Carter. She was not only Cash’s onstage partner, companion, friend, and lover. She was Cash’s saving grace. He would not have survived or succeeded without her, and “Walk The Line” would not have found its direction without Reese Witherspoon. She is why this movie is worth seeing.
Witherspoon sparkles like the glint of light on a razor’s edge. She is so far removed from her typefied roles as the resident blonde, and in her jet black hairdo her beaming eyes and calm manner take on a new light.
Craftily mimicking Carter’s southern accent and jovial disposition, Witherspoon plays her role so effortlessly, so seamlessly and with such clarity, that, yes, Cash’s half of the movie does seem like a mess.
If their lives seem to be going off on different tangents, onstage, Carter and Cash were in perfect tandem. “Walk The Line” shows just that.
Phoenix and Witherspoon are smoldering onstage, adding their own voices to a great selection by music producer T Bone Burnett (who also produced the smash soundtrack to “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”). Burnett also provides the movie with a great score that is composed entirely of simple folksy guitar.
Look out for an outstanding performance from Ginnifer Goodwin who plays Viv, Cash’s first wife (“You pathetic excuse for a man! She’ll find out!”).
The last two major scenes at the end will leave you breathless. Both, of course, involve both Cash and Carter. Both, of course, involve them on stage.
This movie will undoubtedly draw comparisons to “Ray,” another musical biopic released last year, which follows its protagonist in a similar fashion.
What sets “Walk The Line” apart though, is a stunning leading lady whose mere presence was enough to make her the “because” to the hero’s “why?”
If you’re a Johnny Cash fan, you probably knew that already.