Walk The Line
Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Shelby Lynne.
Directed by James Mangold.
Rated PG-13. 136 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $10 out of $10

On my mother’s side of the family, admitting you didn’t like country-western music was enough to get you written out of the will. So I would sit there with the rest of the extended family and pretend to laugh at the hayseed humor of Hee Haw, hoping just this once the producers had lost their minds and booked a musical act without a fiddle.

The exception was Johnny Cash, who looked and sang like he was far removed from the hillbilly high jinks surrounding him. His engaging patter with June Carter (later Cash) was honest and engaging, while his music was gripping and authentic. He commanded the stage, transforming a simple revue into a musical event.

That’s the feeling one gets while watching Walk The Line, the absorbing biography of Cash. Never pretending to be a comprehensive portrait, Walk The Line does an excellent job of incorporating the milestones in the singer’s life which helped define him as a man and an artist. Walk The Line begins and ends with Cash’s record-breaking live performance at Folsom Prison. Director Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis bookend the story with important glimpses of what was and what will be, examining Cash’s traumatic childhood and hopeful future.

Filling Cash’s shoes is Joaquin Phoenix, who wisely forgoes mimicry to expose the tortured soul of the man. I was skeptical at first. By the time Cash died, he had reached iconic status. Maybe his myth became larger than life, but as a person Cash was no stranger to his fans or the media. It would have been easy to recruit a Las Vegas impersonator to play Cash, but Walk The Line isn’t interested in superficial trappings.

Mangold and Dennis, working from two Cash autobiographies, want us to understand what drove a simple man to write such soulful songs. The moment we’re introduced to Johnny Cash as a young man, Phoenix immediately wins us over, turning skepticism into acceptance. I thought I would end up spending the entire film trying to pretend Phoenix was Cash, hoping at least to get caught up in the musical performances. Instead, I was treated to an Oscar-caliber performance which filled every scene with smoldering intensity.

Phoenix doesn’t just play Cash, he becomes Cash. Take away the hair, the clothes, and this Emperor wouldn’t be naked. He’d still be Cash, with all his passion and anguish intact. Phoenix allows Cash to inhabit him, get under his skin, turn him into the Man in Black. With his soulful eyes and quiet desperation, you can see Cash in every move and hear Cash in every word. It’s a consummate performance, made even more impressive every time Phoenix steps up to a microphone and sings one of Cash’s signature songs.

As the object of his affections, Reese Witherspoon breathes life into a young June Carter, so obviously in love with Cash but constantly stuck in bad marriages. I loved Witherspoon in this film. It’s a change of pace for the actress, who delivers a very mature, dramatic and detailed performance. When June bumps into a Bible-Thumper who admonishes her over a divorce, Witherspoon makes it easy for us to feel her embarrassment and hurt. There’s also a frisky side to the performance, especially in Witherspoon’s onstage duets with Phoenix.

Like The Buddy Holly Story and Beyond The Sea, Walk The Line focuses on a decisive time in the performers’ life. After a brief introduction to his childhood, family, and the death of his brother Jack, Walk The Line follows Cash as he marries Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and attempts door-to-door sales to provide for his new family. Cash isn’t much of a salesman, but when he stumbles into the recording studio of Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), believes he has what it takes to make it as a singer.

Raised on gospel, Cash and his band (two friends) fail to impress Phillips until Cash belts out an impromptu version of a song he wrote while stationed in Germany in the Army. Impressed with the song and Cash’s style, Phillips takes him on tour, landing him on stage with young June Carter, whom Cash used to listen to on the radio as a child. There’s an instant attraction between the two, but fate in the form of marriage gets in the way. The more they tour, the more the attraction grows, as does Vivian’s impatience.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, Cash turns to uppers to maintain the rigors of touring, obscuring his judgment and creating an emotional roadblock between him and June. Most films about singers take this toxic detour, which in less talented hands succumbs to the cliché and feels like award grandstanding. That’s not the case with Walk The Line. Cash doesn’t do drugs to hide from fame; he does drugs to keep up with it. Never feeling comfortable in his own skin, Cash is always looking for acceptance. When he doesn’t receive it (from his father, from June, from his wife), he turns to his fans, and in order to satisfy them, turns to drugs.

Phoenix doesn’t use these moments to write his Oscar speech; instead he attempts to help us understand why someone with everything still can’t be happy. Robert Patrick as Cash’s stern and disapproving father provides some clues. We can understand Ray Cash distancing himself from Johnny when Jack dies, but never allowing his surviving son to appreciate his life is unforgivable. With just a few words, Patrick shows just how cold and heartless a parent can be.

Ginnifer Goodwin is another revelation as Vivian, a woman who gets everything a housewife could possibly want, except a husband. Indeed, Vivian believes it’s true love when she marries Cash, and for a while she’s right. Their simple life suits her well, and we see apprehension mixed with happiness when Cash announces his pending profession. Goodwin, mostly known for her lightweight roles (Ed, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton), takes a one-note role, the castoff wife, and turns it into a full-blown symphony of emotions. Goodwin is especially notable in one scene where Johnny introduces June to his family, with Vivian laying down the law when it comes to her children. Bravo!

Director Mangold and his crew have done a masterful job of capturing time and place, creating a cinematic time machine filled with nostalgic images and sounds. Walk The Line is a powerful film filled with powerful performances. Granted it doesn’t have anything new to say, but I’d pay hard-earned cash to hear this story again.