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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick
Written by: Gill Dennis and James Mangold, based on "The Man in Black" by Johnny Cash and "Cash: An Autobiography" by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr
Directed by: James Mangold
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency
Running Time: 136
Date: 09/04/2005
IMDB

Walk the Line (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cold Cash

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in Americanlives. Johnny Cash had at least two acts, possibly even three or four.In the final act of his life, he teamed up with producer Rick Rubin andreleased a series of spare, achingly beautiful albums in which Cash,with his rumbling warble, picked his way through a selection of searingsongs ("Tennessee Stud," "The Man Comes Around," "Hurt"). These newsongs proved Cash's power; he could practically sing the phone book andgenerate warmth and tears.

And so comes the problem of portraying Cash in a fictional film about his life. How does one capture that singular essence? Directed by James Mangold, the new biopic Walk the Line ignores Cash's startling fourth act and tries to compress just the first two or three into the movie's 136 minutes. Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, Identity) cooks up the idea to focus the entire film on Cash's hot-and-cold relationship with June Carter, and that's a good instinct, but Mangold also falls prey to the old biopic formula. He stretches and dilutes the core story until it resembles less a great man's life than a TV movie of the week.

Walk the Line begins well, with a thunderous chugging, as Cash's band warms up for its notorious performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. Mangold knows how boring it would be to start his movie with "Johnny Cash was born, etc. etc." -- so he saves that for the second scene. Little Johnny hears young June singing on the radio, he loses his brother in a power saw accident and their father (Robert Patrick) makes it clear that Johnny is the least favorite of his offspring.

When Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) grows up, he joins the military, marries young, writes a few songs, meets Sam Philips at Sun Records in Memphis, becomes a hit performer and starts taking drugs. Mangold presents these events as a series of highlights, items that might have been checked off in a Cliff's Notes version of Cash's life. Every scene is a major turning point or an epiphany; we never see Cash doing anything normal, we never learn his routines or what he liked or disliked. As with Taylor Hackford's Ray, we can easily follow what the character does, but we rarely get an idea of who he is.

Phoenix struggled long and hard to come up with Cash's drawl, his gait and his depth of soul. Unlike Jamie Foxx in Ray, Phoenix actually sings, and sings up a storm. He stumbles about and sweats during Cash's drug-induced stupors, but Cash's failure to open up mirrors Phoenix's. The actor finds himself cut off by these non-emotional scenes. Also, unlike Foxx, Phoenix doesn't have blindness or another handicap to help win the audience's sympathy as well as Oscar votes.

When Johnny meets June (Reese Witherspoon) in person at a gig, she steals his heart forever. But even in these more focused, emotion-driven scenes taking place between the two would-be lovers, Mangold loses focus. He has set up Johnny as a mystery man who doesn't talk about his feelings, and so each scene comes across about the same: Johnny tries to say something and fails, and June interprets it for him.

If these scenes work at all, it's because of Witherspoon, who after five years of wasting time in stupid romantic comedies, has delivered a performance of passion and precision worthy of the promise she showed in Election (1999). In one amazing scene, a woman in a fishing shop severely scolds June about the singer's neglect of Christian values. June, ever the trained show-person, responds with professional courtesy and an apology, but her eyes are brimming with hurt and frustration. It's the closest we may ever come to understanding Cash and Carter's showbiz bond.

Witherspoon is the movie's emotional key, but its selling point is Phoenix belting out several Cash numbers, especially "Ring of Fire" (1963), which Carter wrote for Cash. The movie's sound design adds new volcanic depth to the song's throaty rhythm, and Phoenix delivers it with a sadistic spark in his eye. It's a frightening, exciting moment, and it recalls an earlier scene in which Cash's Sun Records labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) explains how playing rock 'n' roll is a surefire ticket to hell. That fearsome belief fueled Lewis's ferocious music, and it provides an impetus for Cash as well.

An almost mythical Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) turns up as well, almost as a warning. In real life, these rockers eventually reached their final barriers, but Cash lived on to earn retribution in his fourth act. Walk the Line leaves off long before this, and even though it wraps up its centerpiece love story, Cash still had a lot more walking to do.

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