“You can’t walk no line,” snarls Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter about halfway through the 2005 Academy Award-winning film Walk the Line. Directed at Joaquin Phoenix’s liquored-up Johnny Cash, this outburst illustrates several things about the film as a whole. Much of what makes this James Mangold-directed biopic work is present in the context of the exchange: period costumes and art direction, committed performances and so on. Yet the film’s fatal flaw is unearthed specifically through June Carter’s momentary vitriol. The line itself is designed to be a “gee-whiz” moment illustrating how John and June’s tempestuous life together inspired killer music (in this case suggesting how Cash was inspired to write one of his most well-known tunes). But it’s nothing if not overkill. Even worse, it’s emblematic of how the film distills complex lives down into a manageable, bite-size narratives – oh, and of how it treats audiences like they’re fucking stupid.
Has there ever been a musical bio-pic that doesn’t feature a tired rags-to-riches story? Has there ever been such a bio-pic that doesn’t include tedious childhood trauma? More than likely the answer to both the queries is yes, but Walk the Line is not that film – not by a long shot.
Walk the Line begins by depicting Johnny Cash’s hardscrabble childhood in the deep south, a Tom Sawyer-style origin without all the fun parts. Mangold’s script and direction in these early scenes feels perfunctory and uninspired, more at the service of the myth of Johnny Cash than the man. Probably the clearest example of this is a moment that focuses on Cash staring wide-eyed and lovingly at the family’s cathedral radio, a musical edifice that is not simply a source of entertainment, but of salvation.
Such beats may be more palatable if they were paired with true complexity, but Walk the Line’s characterization of Cash’s early years is one filled with flabby caricature. Walk the Line positions the Man in Black’s father, Ray Cash, as his primary antagonist, a loveless, brooding hulk of a man who is devoid of compassion and warmth. Robert Patrick, who plays Ray, is remembered fondly as the vicious, unstoppable T-1000 from the 1991 blockbuster T2: Judgement Day. It’s hard to believe, but I think the actor actually exuded more warmth in that earlier film, even when his character was literally stabbing people in the back of the head and trying to murder a small child.
Much of Walk the Line’s early run time, however, is devoted to a single purpose: setting up the tragic death of Cash’s older brother Jack, who in 1944 was pulled into a whirling saw and mortally wounded. This horrific event forms the crux of the film’s dramatic arc, underscoring the grief, pain and guilt that the character of Johnny Cash wrestles with for the remainder of the film. This is yet another facet of Walk the Line that feels a bit too clean and neat, an event whose omnipresence throughout every stage of Cash’s life makes one feel like you’re going to go absolutely bananas. There’s no doubt that such a tragedy would weigh on someone for the rest of their life, but the centrality of Jack’s death in, every, aspect, of, Johnny’s struggle makes you just shake your head and say, “Hmm, yeah, no.”
Once the film transitions from Cash’s early years to his adulthood and beginnings as a performer, Walk the Line loses some of this stilted feeling, allowing the character to feel more real. The film’s midsection is devoted to the meeting, touring experiences and budding romance of Johnny Cash and June Carter, and much of it works spectacularly. Scenes of John and June touring quaint 1950’s Americana, with Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and Elvis Presley in tow no less, are undoubtedly charming. They clearly reflect the talent of Arianne Phillips (costume designer); Michael McCusker (editing); and sound designers Doug Hemphill, Peter Kurland and Paul Massey.
The many touring scenes are also where the importance of the film’s music comes into play. Unlike the similarly-themed, similarly-plotted Ray, which appeared one year prior to the release of Walk the Line, Mangold’s film features actors doing their own singing, and the effect is amazing. Although neither Witherspoon and Phoenix possess the vocal power of the real John and June, both handle their songs beautifully. They are also able to use these songs to clearly communicate attraction and chemistry that exists between their characters.
In fact, the film is a showcase for its two leading roles. Although Phoenix is somewhat of pipsqueak compared to craggy, towering figure that was Johnny Cash, he pulls off the role with real gravitas, evoking a wounded psyche hiding behind the magnetism of a born performer. Watching the film recently, I was also surprised by the infantile nature of his performance in select scenes. These elements are particularly evident when his Cash is pining hard for Witherspoon’s elusive June, something that gives new meaning to the line in Ring of Fire where he croons, “I fell for you like a child.”
As Cash’s future better half, Witherspoon is pretty remarkable as June, and is probably the better vocal performer of the two. She is able to easily convey a complex mixture of emotions, showing June to be a woman of enormous talent and joy but also someone burdened by the demands of family and the culture at large. Similar to Phoenix as Cash, Witherspoon makes June feel like a real person – a huge accomplishment, as the rest of the film’s characters do not receive a similar treatment.
I mentioned previously that the one thing that continually plagues Walk the Line is its scorn for the audience’s intelligence. Piss-poor writing is responsible in this scenario and is deeply felt throughout Walk the Line’s characterizations. In addition to Robert Patrick’s T-1000 version of Ray Cash, the film chooses to demonize Johnny Cash’s first wife Vivian Liberto Distin, turning someone who was allegedly perfectly pleasant into a fire-breathing hob-goblin. Portrayed with squinty-eyed malice by Gennifer Goodwin, the character of Vivian is terribly conceived and written, serving no purpose aside from giving the film’s hero something to struggle against. It’s a primary example of how Mangold’s script is a disservice to audiences and to the real lives behind the film. He takes what was undoubtedly a very complicated marriage and turns it into simplistic, spoon-fed drivel.
The script’s failures are not resigned to characterizations. The final part of Walk the Line concerns itself with Cash’s descent into drug addiction, his path to sobriety and his comeback recording of the blockbuster record “At Folsom Prison” in 1968. Mangold attempts to create some sort of tidy Christian resurrection story with this material, a facile paean about how love and forgiveness are able to help even a damaged, turbulent soul find peace.
The problem of course is that life doesn’t work that way, and it certainly didn’t for Johnny Cash, who continued to struggle with addiction into the 1990s. Now, I am aware that Walk the Line is not a documentary, but great biographical filmmaking embraces complexity and finds ways to turn the messy chaos of life into a compelling narrative. Walk the Line on the other hand shuns it. It resigns itself to the type of biographical filmmaking practiced by Ron Howard, who insinuated in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind that John Nash was able to control his schizophrenia through the power of wife’s love. It also bares a resemblance to Scorsese’s mostly-excellent The Aviator, which bizarrely attributed Howard Hughes’ many phobias to one Oedipal-infused bath given to him by his mother when he was a tot.
Such suggestions may appease the cretins in the audience, but the reality is that most audience members are not cretins. Instead, they are human being who have lived lives, who have awareness of the fact that things like addiction, love, self-acceptance and even a hit song like Walk the Line do not come into being in a linear, cohesive or even understandable fashion. These things are too big. Life is too big. And these are facts that Walk the Line – with its frankly patronizing writing – seems unwilling to understand.