I find it very, very easy to be true/I find myself alone when each day is through/Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you/Because you're mine, I walk the line"
The Johnny Cash hit that gives Walk the Line its title doesn't mean what it seems. Lyrics like the ones above proudly declare romantic fidelity in the face of temptation. But Cash's "line" proves a lot more blurry than the song would have you believe.
According to James Mangold's film, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) wrote "I Walk the Line" while married but freely sleeping with his female fans in the 1950s. The film even implies that his wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Godwin), wasn't the song's inspiration, arguing that his true love was June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), country music child star and Cash's future wife after a long, tempestuous creative partnership. Walk the Line evokes a compelling live performer and his knotty private life, but gives us only the lightest understanding of Johnny Cash.
"The Man in Black" cut a formidable figure in American music and stayed politically outspoken in a way that, like his monochromatic wardrobe, fit uncomfortably with the conservative country music establishment. With his fascination with sin, his troubles with drug addiction and his thunderous voice, Cash came on like an Old Testament prophet fresh from the desert.
Director/co-writer Mangold only offers a conventional treatment of this unconventional artist. Walk the Line leans heavily on standard-issue biopic clichés, which feel especially flimsy since Ray, last year's Oscar-winning Ray Charles movie, handled comparable material with so much more grace and insight. You can almost imagine Walk the Line's filmmakers' going through a musical biopic checklist: Guilt over his brother's death? Check. "Eureka" moment improvising his signature sound? Check. Drug bust and paparazzi feeding frenzy? Check. Standing up to white guys in suits at the straight-laced record label? Check.
Of course, some of these details become cinematic stereotypes because pop stars and famous artists rise to the same creative challenges and fall prey to the same pressures. But where Ray drew on Charles' blindness and musical innovation to illustrate his character, Walk the Line, despite deriving from Cash's two autobiographies, only circles its subject, without truly comprehending him.
Mangold gives the film a thrilling introduction outside the gates of Folsom Prison, with a roaring crowd building up to Cash's famous live recording. Then we slog through ho-hum flashbacks of Cash's unhappy childhood with disapproving dad (Robert Patrick) and ill-fated stints with the Air Force and as a door-to-door salesman.
Walk the Line recaptures its early energy when Cash goes on tour with his new labelmates from Sun Records. With the clubby camaraderie of musicians on the road and passable impersonations of live-wire talents like Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), the film catches a present-at-the-creation excitement of mid-1950s rockabilly, unifying brash musicians and adoring audiences. Cash and his cohorts seem like spiritual ancestors to groundbreaking, 1970s-era punk rockers, only with snappier wardrobes. Elvis gets only a few lines of dialogue but casts a long shadow: With his larger-than-life talent and appetites, he's at once a musical role model and a personal bad example. (When we first hear him speak, he compliments Cash's set, then drawls, "You want some chili fries?") Cash follows Elvis' footsteps in sampling groupies and drugs, and his self-control dwindles as his fame expands.
Phoenix frequently excels at the kind of contained, broody acting that hints at internal struggles, and Cash clearly had demons to spare. But as much as Walk the Line traces Cash's personal decline, the script uncovers few complexities in his character and loses sight of him as a potent artist. For much of the film, Cash seems like little more than a famous junkie with nothing going on upstairs, and Phoenix's performance presents him as sullen and kind of dim.
You end up wishing Walk the Line's central character was June, with Cash playing the offbeat love interest, rather than the other way around. Born into country music royalty as part of the Carter Family, June emerges as a fresh, fascinating personality. Witherspoon authentically captures June's confident, Minnie Pearl-style stage comedy as well as her low self-esteem over her musical talent. She and Cash effectively become each other's muses, even though she spends years shooting down his attempts at courtship.
When June comes off a messy divorce, she's painfully aware of the scandal that could accompany singing a racy duet like "Time's A-Wastin'" with Cash. As a celebrity in 1950s country music, June must weather harsher, more moralistic scrutiny than a present-day tabloid favorite like Angelina Jolie could imagine. Witherspoon's sensitive portrayal of June's guilt, shame, sex appeal and eventual independence proves far more compelling than watching an intoxicated Cash trash a bathroom or back a tractor into a lake.
As singers, Phoenix and Witherspoon both prove to be startlingly talented mimics. During the concert scenes, I was certain they were dubbing recordings from the originals, especially since Phoenix's early singing seemed more hollow than Cash's resounding vocal chords. But the soundtrack credits the two actors.
Walk the Line flirts with dramatizing Cash's battle to control his soul, with references to fishing and carpentry perhaps serving as subtle Christian symbols to counteract silver-tongued devils like Elvis. But Walk the Line's filmmakers never really commit to any insightful notion about Johnny Cash.