Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon as June Carter
Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Cash
Robert Patrick as Ray Cash
Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips
Dan John Miller as Luther Perkins
Larry Bagby as Marshall Grant
Shelby Lynne as Carrie Cash
Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley
Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis (as Waylon Malloy Payne)
Shooter Jennings as Waylon Jennings
Sandra Ellis Lafferty as Maybelle Carter
Dan Beene as Ezra Carter
Clay Steakley as W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland
Johnathan Rice as Roy Orbison
“Walk the Line” is as much of a love story as it is a loving musical tribute to the mysterious man in black. A fine achievement in cinematic storytelling thanks to great acting and brilliant direction from James Mangold.
The story of country legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is told through his ongoing romance with fellow singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and how they get through tough times, from Cash’s pill popping addiction to Carter’s own marital troubles until finally agreeing to marry Cash.
Country singer Johnny Cash was always a fascinating enigma of a man in black even to the fans who cherished his music and relished all of the myths that circulated around him. So it’s surprising that it took this long for a movie about Cash’s life to finally see the light of day, and fortunately, it’s been done right.
Sure, many comparisons will immediately be made to last year’s “Ray,” although “Walk the Line” is clearly a different movie if only because it’s more linear and focuses on a very specific part of Cash’s life. Before it gets there, it flashes back to Cash’s childhood when his older brother is killed in an accidentlike Ray Charles, who also lost a sibling at an early ageand it ends up leading Cash to a similar life filled with guilt and inferiority since his father blames him for his brother’s death. Even at a young age, Cash is trying to write songs like the ones in the hymnals, and neither his father nor his new young wife Vivian are too happy when he decides he wants to be a musician. This option seems more viable after the fateful day that Cash comes across Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, where rock ‘n’ roll legends like Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their start.
Cash’s life reaches its most defining moment when he first meets June Carter, a lifelong country and gospel singer, while on the road. A firecracker of a personality, Carter is sweet and down-to-earth and almost the polar opposite of Cash’s arrogance. At first, you’re amazed that they’re able to find common ground but these two different styles somehow work together enough for them to perform together later in their careers. Eventually, life on the road gets to Cash, and he starts drinking and popping pills to try to keep up with his idol Elvis, but it’s too much for June, who is miserable over the collapse of her high-profile marriage.
Obviously, the film’s emotional core relies almost entirely on the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, both on stage and off. Phoenix nails Cash’s trademark sneer and menacing glare, although you also get to see Cash shed his tough guy image to see him at his most vulnerable. Likewise, Witherspoon is just as good at conveying June’s bubbly on-stage persona, which is such a nice balance to Cash’s brooding nature, which does start to wear her down. She shows some amazing emotions in the role that reminds us what a talented actress she is, something that most people forget because of all the shallow romantic comedies she’s been doing lately. The two actors are amazing on screen together, giving you the impression that the cocky Cash would have been helpless if June weren’t there to help him kick the drugs. As much as she obviously loves him, she repeatedly spurns his advances and marriage proposals, but never leaves his side.
The real romance between these two is on stage, and the film is a real treat because of the loving recreations of some of Cash’s best known songs performed during his days touring with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as in the legendary gig he performed at the Folsom Prison he made famous in song. Orchestrated by music maestro T. Bone Burnett, the selection of Cash tunes is quite perfect, and there’s a good reason why people are impressed with the fact that Phoenix and Witherspoon sung their own vocals. Phoenix’s voice starts out shaky but even that works in terms of the story to show how Cash’s voice developed over the year. By the end of the movie, Phoenix has all of Cash’s mannerisms and gestures down pat.
A few supporting performances shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly that of Ginnifer Goodwin (“Mona Lisa Smile”) as Cash’s dejected wife, who is immediately jealous of how much attention her husband gives to Carter on stage and off. Eventually, it destroys their marriage, but it offers Goodwin many times to show off her underrated acting skills. Robert Patrick, barely recognizable here as the T-1000 from “Terminator 2”, seems to be channeling Chris Cooper while playing Cash’s abusive father, a relationship that comes to a head over a Thanksgiving dinner where Cash almost gets killed while trying to win his father’s love and respect. A smaller role, but one with some impact, is Dallas Roberts as Sun Records’ president Sam Phillips.
Except for a slight lull in the middle, there’s very little wrong with this masterfully crafted film that offers plenty of laughs and entertainment value despite all the drama with drugs and Cash’s conflict with his father. Just watching Cash go from performing in front of screaming girls to playing for shouting inmates is almost enough to make it worthwhile. Director James Mangold does a great job with the structure and pacing of the story to allow it the most emotional impact, and while it’s often hard to watch this type of biodrama without wondering how much of it really happened, in this case, the love story between Cash and Carter is so wonderful that you just won’t care.
The Bottom Line:
Without fear of hyperbole, “Walk the Line” may be one of the finest musical biodramas in recent memory in large part due to the decision to base it on the love story between Cash and Carter.