DVD Review Of Walk The Line

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/14/06


  James Mangold, the director who brought us such flawed but interesting films as Copland and Girl, Interrupted, has done it again. He has crafted another flawed but interesting film, Walk The Line, named after one of Cash’s biggest musical hits; this one on the life of Johnny Cash. Actress Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Cash’s wife June Carter Cash, of the famed Carter Family singers, and while she’s solid, competent, the award she won is merely another way for Hollywood to elevate the bankability of sexy young starlets- think Marissa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Swank, Renee Zellwegger, Charlize Theron, and now Witherspoon. Financially, for the long term of the industry, this makes sense, so that, even decades from now, films they appear in can bear the Oscar imprint. But, it really screws the art form, and demeans far greater performances given by much better, older actresses.

  Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Cash, however, is completely out of his league as the infamous Man In Black. The other major biopic, this past Oscar season, was Capote, based upon the half decade or so the famed writer was researching and penning his masterful nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. Yet, the differences between these two films could not be more stark. First off, Capote is not a biopic trying to give a sense of the man over the course of his life. Walk The Line is. This means it already starts with an off the rack premise, and formula, and since we know Johnny and June will end up together, there’s really nothing left for the picture to explore. Yes, we learn of Cash’s dead brother Jack (Lucas Till), his tensions with his father Ray (Robert Patrick), his supportive mother Carrie (Shelby Lynne), and, of course, there is the obligatory rise, fall, and re-rise of the tormented artist- replete with sex, drugs, and a bevy of sinning. But, it all works out because, well, the love of a good woman saves him, by gum! Blame Mangold’s screenplay, written with his co-screenwriter Gill Dennis, for this aspect of the film’s failure. Of course, many music careers are the same: suffering, obscurity, success, too much money, sex, drugs, booze, and then redemption, but this does not excuse the piss poor script for not adding an ounce of illumination nor individuation to Cash’s saga.

  Capote, on the other hand, delineates that writer’s creative apogee, and we see dark and manipulative sides to Truman Capote, which heralds his descent, from which he won’t recover from, but which we do not get onscreen. The whole of the writer’s life and personality is thus seen through the prism of a few key years and events, as we get the proverbial more with less approach. The other thing that separates this biopic from its rival is that while Joaquin Phoenix is no hack, he’s no great actor, either. Philip Seymour Hoffman IS a great actor. Hoffman does not merely affect the Capotean lisp and fey manners, he reveals that below that exterior is a self-centered, nasty little man, as emotionally brutal as a serial killer is physically brutal. With Phoenix, all we get is a snarled lip, a deep voice, and a vacant stare. There is no Johnny Cash in his Johnny Cash, not a moment where we learn who the real Cash was, inside, and outside of Hollywood stereotypes. In short, Phoenix’s character is a mere suit to be sloughed off, nothing but an impersonation lacking charisma, while Hoffman’s Capote is a true reincarnation, and an  embodiment of its subject, and this claim has nothing to do with method acting, but the final results onscreen.

  The film’s story really isn’t much more than what I limned above. Cash suffers through youth, goes out on tour, after cutting a record with a very sensitive record executive, Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) of Sun Records, in Memphis, who wants ‘real’ music. There, he meets June, Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holliday), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), and other notables. For the next decade, as he grows richer and more famous, Cash becomes a druggy, cheats on his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and kids- the wife’s a clueless shrew, of course. They divorce, June helps Johnny sober up, and after a cat and mouse game she finally accepts his onstage marriage proposal at a concert. By film’s end we even get a scene, the film’s best, which ends the film, where Cash and his father reach a détente, if not an outright reconciliation.

  Reputedly, Phoenix and Witherspoon sung their musical roles themselves, without lip synching. Whether true or not, the film is definitely at its best when the music is going. While I’m not a fan of country music, nor Johnny Cash, it is easy to see his appeal to others, at least musically. Yet, his life was, in truth, nothing out of the ordinary that hundreds of celebrities have not dealt with. We simply get a male version of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Perhaps the only artistically successful biopic of a music star that I can think of is Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which chronicles, mainly, the life of rock star Jim Morrison. That film basically visually recapitulated the style of Morrison’s life onscreen, whereas this film is a paint by the numbers, A to B to C, film that only unwittingly shows how commonplace Cash was. Plug in any number of artists or musicians and the basic structure and style of the film would be the same. That Mangold takes two hours and fifteen minutes to let this formula play out says not too much for his editing skills, even though we get a bevy of deleted scenes on the DVD, along with a trailer, and a commentary from Mangold, which is filled with the usual critical fellatio, and even a moment where Mangold defends critical fellatio on DVDs! Even worse, he uses the ridiculous ‘art is truth’ gambit to justify allowing Phoenix to sing Cash’s songs, even though he hits as many clunkers as the rejects from American Idol do. Witherspoon is a bit better, but Carter Cash’s voice is not as unique as her husband’s was.

  Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael adds little to the film. His framing and vistas do little to enhance texture of the scenes, nor do they add an unconscious poetic element. Despite globetrotting, Cash’s life is portrayed as static and dull, and the love story is nothing great. What Mangold does not grasp is that the real reason cash is worthy of a film is because of his singing and songwriting. When will biopics about artists actually focus on the art, and not the soap operatic stuff? But, if they are going to focus on the peripherals, one would think they’d play up the fascinating stuff, the legendary stuff, not the usual crap all people go through, for that merely shows that the subject is like the viewer, when the fascination stems from what the subject has that is NOT like the average person. In other words, as the saying goes, always print the legend over the truth. Walk The Line never trots down that alley.

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