Review: Walk the Line (2005)

Walk the Line

Walk the Line

Rating



Director

James Mangold

Screenplay

Gill Dennis, James Mangold (Books: Johnny Cash)

Length

136 min.

Starring

Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Malloy Payne, Shooter Jennings, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Dan Beene

MPAA Rating

PG-13 (For some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)

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Review

He was one of Rock-N-Roll’s greatest influences. His songs helped define who he was as a person and in the new biopic Walk the Line , Johnny Cash comes to vivid life.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the adult version of the country singer known as much for his hits as for his troubled past. The new film by director James Mangold explores his life growing up and the events that led up to his union with folk comedienne June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).

There are many events that define a man. Cash grew up working for his family and listening to the radio despite his father’s insistence that good work cannot come out of music. Ray Cash (Robert Patrick) was like many fathers during the period. Nothing John (played in his youth by Ridge Canipe) ever did was good enough for him. And when John’s brother Jack (Lucas Till) died, Ray saw John as an easy scapegoat. The audience also learn that his mother Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) was his musical inspiration, encouraging him when his father tried to put down his love of music.

After serving in the military, Johnny tried to make his way in the recording industry. His first audition began with a gospel ballad that producer Sam Phillips told him would never sell and to choose something that he might sing on his death bed to tell everyone who he really was. John sang his heart out and ended up on tour where he met the young June Carter. Walk the Line then follows Johnny, who was still married at the time, in his attempts to woo June into bed and eventually to be his bride.

In Walk the Line , Phoenix gives a fantastic performance as the legendary man in black. He captures every bit of Cash’s personality and creates a living incarnation of the legend. With such a persona, it would be hard to conceive of anyone stealing the show, however Witherspoon does it. Her June Carter is tender, sweet and tough as nails. It’s not hard to see why he fell in love with such a strong woman and Witherspoon is completely responsible for delivering that understanding.

The film is immensely informative about the life of Johnny Cash as he grew up and went through the difficult trials of substance abuse and depression. Director James Mangold deftly takes us through these events but sticks very close to his screenplay despite its reliance on run of the mill biopic structure. One can’t help but feel that if Walk the Line diverted more from the pattern it would have been a perfect film.

If Mangold had kept more of the intriguing style he used in the superb Identity , Walk the Line might have relied less on its screenplay. However, the thing one has to remember is that Mangold also co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriter Gill Dennis, whose only memorable film is 1985’s less-than-spectacular Return to Oz. Identity is the only film he’s directed that he hasn’t also written the screenplay. Perhaps its this reliance on his own work that causes the film to suffer. It might be within his interest to stick to directing other people’s works otherwise he’s destined to remain the middle-brow director that created Kate & Leopold.

Remove the screenplay issues and one will discover that Walk the Line is an enjoyable and often entertaining picture about the life of a musical legend. Few could say that one doesn’t come out with a great deal of respect for what Cash achieved and what June helped revitalize. It’s a film that will easily appeal to anyone who loves his music.

Review Written

December 29, 2005

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