November 22, 2005

Phoenix and Witherspoon turn in fiery performances in Mangold’s Walk the Line

As they say in the operating room, first things first: There are musical and geographical facts which cast their shadow—or brilliant light, if you prefer—over my opinion of Walk the Line.

Fact number one is that I am a big-time Johnny Cash fan. I bought my first CD when I was in 10th grade, and I’ve never since grown tired of hearing his songs and that deep, mean, pious voice.

Fact number two, which predates and reinforces fact number one, is that I am from Arkansas. Wal-Mart, Al Green, and, of course, Johnny, all get me excited, and I’ve been wanting to write this review for a long time.

Thus, I sat down at Walk the Line, sure, to be entertained, but with an eagerness to judge and condemn at the first misstep (ha ha! Get it?) As I was leaving, I found that I was neither euphoric nor dejected but very much impressed.

Walk the Line is—above all—a forceful movie, almost confrontational, and on the strength of its performances and direction it succeeds at all the moments it should. Joaquin Phoenix, and you can say you heard it here, is a genius. When I discovered it was he who would be playing Johnny, I thought, that guy? From The Village? But from looks to mannerisms, there is no aspect of his performance that does not radiate young Johnny Cash. I was wowed by Jamie Foxx’s turn as Ray Charles, but Phoenix actually made me nervous, as if the anger that was so much a part of Johnny’s earlier years would become too much for the movie to hold.

There is a scene where Phoenix hurries onstage with red eyes after eating a handful of meth, and he kicks out a stage light in front of a family and stutters through the song before falling on his face. You want to say, “Stop, Johnny, stop!”—but it’s not Johnny, it’s Joaquin, and it’s just a film.

Even that most essential element, the voice, is handled admirably by Joaquin, who interprets the Cash baritone in such a way as to become a genuinely alternate Cash, but never an imitation. As for Reese Witherspoon, her June Carter embodies a full personality, characteristically Southern, but more than that—simply smart and good-natured.

Witherspoon masters the onstage/offstage duality that, I imagine, was crucial to June, since she had been performing since she was four; at one point in the film, she talks to Johnny backstage while shouting to the audience in a dialogue with the evening’s host. I’m fairly certain that I could not do that without a few acting classes. Witherspoon’s voice is not as convincing as Phoenix’s, but as June says in the film, she’s not that good of a singer, and that’s why she learned to be funny.

Throughout Walk the Line, it is clear that we are in the hands of a talented and considerate director. Mangold effectively suggests Johnny’s greed, despite his genuine love for June, by having Phoenix eat three peanuts that he first offers to Witherspoon. Immediately after, Phoenix gets out of bed and pops a few little pills and excuses himself from the room.

Then there is the first shot of Cash’s face, in which Phoenix is breathing shallowly and sweating. Why? We later find out that he is waiting for his encore at the Folsom Prison show, but Mangold has Cash sweat a lot, mostly when he is on pills. Unlike Ray Charles, who—Ray tells us—never again touched heroin after he quit, Johnny Cash relapsed more than once.

Good readers, Walk the Line is an achievement because T2’s own T-1000, Robert Patrick, plays Johnny Cash’s dad. But seriously, while that is true, this film has some performances that will be remembered for a long time, and you need to see it.