Directed by James Mangold. Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne. 20th Century Fox.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Depiction of drug addiction and abuse; some sexual content including offscreen adultery; a scene of domestic violence; some obscene and crude language.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
How did Johnny Cash pull it off? He never did hard time, yet his rebel/outlaw image was so persuasive that fans who know every word of his songs sometimes believe he really did kill a man in Reno just to watch him die, as he sang in “Folsom Prison Blues.” Yet he was also an Evangelical folk hero, a close personal friend of Billy Graham, who co-wrote and narrated a movie about Jesus, wrote a novel about St. Paul, and was himself the subject of an inspirational comic-book biography from Spire Christian Comics.
He spent nearly a half century recording and performing country and rockabilly, and at his height was easily country music’s biggest star. Yet he seemed bigger than the label, and indeed he and the rest of the country world never seemed to get along.
As sprawling and complex as the life of Johnny Cash is, the crux of his story is perhaps a three-year period between 1968 and 1971, during which Cash recovered from his earlier drug addiction, married June Carter, recorded his hugely successful live concert album at Folsom State Prison in Represa, California, and responded to an altar call at Evangel Temple near Nashville, renewing his Christian faith.
Walk the Line, the latest entry in the new wave of Hollywood prestige biopics, gets as far as three of these events, but stops short of the last. In one late scene we see Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) walking toward a church, but we don’t see the altar call. The result is a story that is more about Christian guilt than redemption — a love story in which the lead character slowly destroys his marriage and family through selfishness and cupidity; a story of addictive behavior in which drugs are eventually supplanted by obssession with a self-possessed but vulnerable young woman.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were married for almost 35 years and died within months of one another, so they must have had a good thing going. That knowledge — and the charisma of stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June — may tempt viewers to root for them to hook up. Many critics, indeed, are calling the film a “love story.”
Yet if Walk the Line is a love story, it strikes me as a remarkably ambivalent, unromantic one. Johnny’s fascination with the bubbly Grand Old Opry princess is disturbingly obsessive and overbearing. The first time he makes a pass at her is onstage, where he uses the eyes of the audience as a weapon to aggressively manipulate June into singing a duet with him, then chooses a love song from her days with her ex-husband, singer Carl Smith. June is adamant about singing a different song — but since Johnny’s holding the guitar, he has the upper hand, and forces her to sing the song he wants. A few lines in, he steals a kiss, and she runs offstage in a passion.
Nor is this the last time Johnny tries such coercive tactics to get what he wants from June. The last of his numerous marriage proposals is just as passive-aggressively pushy and controlling as that first pass.
More than other recent biopics such as Ray and Kinsey, which made a show of “warts and all” even-handedness even as they softened the reality, Walk the Line dares to allow its protagonist to be genuinely unsympathetic.
Ray, in particular, demands to be taken as a point of comparison, in part due to startling coincidental convergences between the two men’s lives. Like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash was born to a poor Southern family, was emotionally scarred for life by a tragic childhood accident that claimed the life of his older brother, and went on to a musical career that slowly came unraveled with drug abuse and womanizing.
Yet where Ray cast its hero’s womanizing in an indulgently humorous light, and Kinsey whitewashed Alfred Kinsey’s extreme perversions as the naive experimentation of an ivory-tower academic, Walk the Line presents Johnny Cash as venal, posturing, brutally insensitive to his first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), and less concerned with June’s needs and desires than his own right up to the end.
There’s a moral seriousness to this depiction of Johnny’s moral failures, and to their consequences in his life and in the lives of his wife and daughters, that is a welcome change from the usual Hollywood gloss-over.
Kathy Cash, one of the four daughters of Johnny and Vivian Cash, has denounced the film’s portrayal of her mother, whom she says is seen in the film as a “non-entity” and a “mad little psycho” who “hated his career.”
What Vivian Cash was really like, I can’t say. I can only report that, watching the film, my sympathies were 100 percent with the “mad little psycho,” who is in fact nothing of the sort. She’s a tragic figure, not an unsympathetic one, and the last scene in which she and her daughters appear is a devastating indictment of Johnny’s failure to “walk the line.”
That’s not to say that June comes off badly — quite the contrary. The filmmakers are at pains to avoid presenting June as the homewrecker. Instead, Walk the Line insists that Johnny alone is fully responsible for wrecking his own home.
June, in fact, provides the film’s emotional and moral center, something lacking entirely in Ray. Merry, witty, level-headed, a gifted performer, June is a natural attention magnet, and she captures Johnny’s heart as naturally and inevitably as she does that of every audience on every stage.
June regards Johnny with affection and sympathy, but knows better than to get mixed up with him, even after his marriage goes sour. When his drug habit gets out of control, she sticks with him, and supports his stumbling career by touring with him. But she resists his relentless advances — most of the time, anyway.
Witherspoon shines as the clowning Nashville diva as if born to the role. Her energy and warmth offset Johnny’s dark obsessiveness, and her no-nonsense directness exposes his subterfuges at every turn. Phoenix brings a riveting intensity to Johnny, slowly growing into the role as perhaps the real Cash grew over time into the role of Johnny Cash. The concert scenes highlight the film, with impressive vocal performances from the principals; Witherspoon sings up a storm, and Phoenix finds a low growl that captures something of Cash’s inimitable sound.
In spite of all it does right, Walk the Line leaves one with the nagging sense of a story unfinished — or rather, with something left out. An early scene, with Johnny nervously trying out in front of legendary producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), suggests that Johnny Cash became Johnny Cash, in a sense, by turning his back on the pieties of the gospel music on which he had been raised. Phillips even goes so far as to suggest that Cash’s early gospel singing is so lacking in conviction, he seems not to believe in God.
Yet if Cash’s early inability to communicate belief in God is such a defining moment, isn’t Cash’s later, thoroughly persuasive affirmation of Christianity an indispensable counterpoint? Is it legitimate to make the one a cornerstone in a Johnny Cash movie and leave the other out entirely? To borrow a page from a friend whose take on the film was more negative than mine, could you make a movie about Tom Cruise and have as little to say about Scientology as this film does about Christianity?
In the Folsom prison concert, we see Johnny jokingly tell the prisoners that the concert is being recorded, “so we can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘damn’ or anything like that.” Whether or not he could say such things on the album, clearly there is no difficulty about saying them in the film. Yet the film, too, doesn't allow Johnny to say all that he had to say. It just censors the religion, rather than the profanity.
In real life, Cash chose to close the Folsom concert with a gospel song written by one of the inmates, “Greystone Chapel.” Walk the Line shows Cash the outlaw rebel at Folsom, but not Cash the gospel singer — to say nothing of the reconverted Cash of three years later. Such reticence is curious in a biopic about a man who was anything but.