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Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon in 'Walk the Line'

Movie Info


PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.


November 18, 2005


Drama, Musical/Performing Arts and Biopic


Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, Waylon Payne


James Mangold


20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Releasing


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Walk the Line

By Chris Carpenter Program Director Johnny Cash was equal parts sinner and saint. He was a man of faith troubled by an unrelenting past. But with second wife June Carter, Cash eventually escaped the darkness and found his way into the light.

In the highly anticipated film Walk the Line, opening in theaters today, director and co-writer James Mangold chooses to focus on perhaps the most turbulent period of Cash’s life – the mid-1950’s through the Folsom State Prison concert in 1968. Missing is the intense spiritual revival that transformed the Man in Black in the 1970’s, thus sustaining he and wife June until their deaths in 2003.

The spirituality forged within him by God-fearing parents during his youth in rural Arkansas is well represented but the film’s focus is clearly on events that drove Cash away from God during his earlier adult years. But somewhere in the cinematic subterfuge movie goers will find several events that shaped who Johnny Cash became in the later years of his life.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a razor sharp performance worthy of Oscar consideration in his portrayal of the Man in Black. With eyes burning hot as coal, Phoenix, who was handpicked by Cash to play the role, emotes raw emotion and a commanding presence both onstage and off.

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Walk the Line'While Phoenix looks nothing like him, he does a masterful job of assuming many of the mannerisms that made Cash unique. From the distinct way he held his guitar to the way he would sometimes sing or talk out the side of his mouth, Phoenix deftly makes viewers believe he is Johnny Cash.

Witherspoon is equally impressive in her portrayal of June Carter. Showing a depth in character well beyond Legally Blonde or Sweet Home Alabama, she not only finds the soul of June Carter, but more importantly demonstrates June’s endearing character traits in all their complexity.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of Walk the Line is Mangold’s risky decision to use the original singing voices of Phoenix and Witherspoon rather than dubbing in the original voices of Johnny and June. It is a great contrast to last year’s musical biopic Ray in which Jamie Foxx lip synched to the original recordings of Ray Charles. Phoenix and Witherspoon sing every note in the movie and while neither of them sound exactly like Cash or Carter, it does not detract from the film.

Two scenes of relevance clearly symbolize the undercurrent of faith in this movie. In one, Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) utters, “We’re all goin’ to hell for the songs we sing!” on a midnight car ride from one gig to the next. The statement indicates that Cash and his contemporaries had a clear Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewisunderstanding that what they were doing was not in accord with how they were raised. In the other, Cash, in a desperate plea to regain what his life was intended to be, drives a tractor into the lake outside his home. Drug dependency, the failure of his first marriage, and his desire to have his father finally accept him; have taken a highly emotional toll on him. His immersion into the lake serves as a baptism of sorts, a cleansing of his sins before he can begin to rebuild his life.

Walk the Line is rated PG-13 for many of its adult themes including infidelity and drug dependency. While it is disappointing to see the overt use of drugs and Cash’s longing for June onscreen despite the fact he is married and has several children at home, it is clearly a part of who Johnny Director James Mangold, Joaquin Phoenix, on the set of 'Walk the Line'Cash was at the time and what ultimately led to his redemption. In addition, there are several expletives and coarse depictions in the film but only one misuse of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Simply put, this is not a film for the entire family.

Ultimately, Walk the Line is a film with three threads running through it. First, there is the love story with June, a remarkable friendship that brought out the best and the worst of Johnny Cash. Second, it is the psychological battle Johnny wrestles with drugs, his father, and the memories of his brother (killed in a grisly saw mill accident as a youth). Finally, it is about Johnny’s artistic journey of finding his own voice, his audience, and his identity onstage. The interweaving of these threads gives movie goers a much better understanding of this enigmatic performer in terms of how the emotional darkness in his life eventually gave way to light.

By showing the demons that drove Cash for decades, Mangold has found the root of a man who eventually became an American icon. Walk the Line is a psychological foray into what created a legend and is worthy of Oscar consideration. Johnny Cash is gone but clearly not forgotten.

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