Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Walk The Line To A Captivating Biography

The Good: Excellent acting, Good character development, Strong pacing/plot, Good musical direction
The Bad: Resolution is not so much a resolution but an end
The Basics: With exceptional acting and a compelling dramatic story to tell, Walk The Line follows the career, personal life, and awkward romance of one of America's musical icons.

I'm not a country music fan, but when I listen to country and enjoy it, it is almost exclusively classic country. Johnny Cash is one of the artists I've listened to and enjoyed . Walk The Line is the recent biography of Johnny Cash charting his life and musicmaking with special emphasis on his relationship with June Carter.

John Cash, as a young boy, loses his brother in an accident with an industrial saw. His father, the emotionally distant Ray Cash, vocally asks god why the divine didn't take John instead. John grows up, joins the Air Force and goes to Germany, returns home and starts a family and he begins to follow his dream of recording music. When Cash begins to record his own, deeply personal songs, his career takes off and he begins a rocky career that parallels June Carter, a beautiful young country singer/comedian who runs in the same circles as Cash. As unresolved issues from Johnny's past drive him to despair, drugs and infidelity, his career takes turns unpleasant and real.

Walk The Line sells Johnny Cash as a poor man who pulled himself up and succeeded by being a true and individual artist. In fact, most of his professional complications come when he forsakes his individuality - he starts doing drugs with rock stars when Elvis and his people get him into them. Cash's infidelity spins out of that and it's not something heavily explored in this film.

What is a driving force throughout the movie is Johnny's attempts to get his father to recognize him and his talent. Walk The Line explores Johnny's deep-seated inferiority complex because his father Ray is withholding of even basic love and respect. It makes for a compelling character study and the scenes between Ray and Johnny are great on a character and cinematic level.

Similarly, Walk The Line is essentially the love story of Johnny and June Carter. That's misleading; it's the backstory to their love story. With something like a biography of two famous people like Johnny and June it is not ruining the surprise to indicate that they fall in love. However, Walk The Line does not deal with the two in love so much as it builds up to it.

Then the movie ends. The movie ending on the high note of the moment Johnny and June actually fall for one another completely is acceptable and it's a fine point to end. Far more problematic is the fact that there is no resolution in the Ray/Johnny plot/character conflict. Throughout the movie, Johnny's life takes drastic turns based on stimulus from his father - usually the withholding of acknowledgment that Johnny's life has any intrinsic value - and it is disturbing that the viewer is not granted the chance to see or learn how that circumstance resolved itself.

Robert Patrick, perhaps best known for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (reviewed here!) or the latter seasons of The X-Files, plays Ray Cash. Wow. Robert Patrick is one of those actors who exploded on the scene (T2) then disappeared from the mainstream attention for a long time and worked his way back into something impressive. The years of work have paid off; Patrick is brilliant as Ray, eliciting shivers from viewers for his icy portrayal of the wounded patriarch. Patrick's cold stare accents his tight-lipped delivery of lines in a compelling fashion that makes him rule every scene he is in.

Patrick plays brilliantly off lead Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix takes on the swagger, the affect of Johnny Cash so perfectly that when I watched documentary footage of Cash after viewing Walk The Line, I was impressed by the similarities. Phoenix is given the task, not so much of creating a character but, of replicating an established personality and making him understandable and as close to universally liked as possible. He succeeds admirably. And he does a great job with the vocals throughout Walk The Line, recreating the sound of Johnny Cash. That's essential to convincing the audience of his worth.

It is Reese Witherspoon who rules Walk The Line, though. Who would have guessed that the star of Legally Blonde (reviewed here!) could righteously portray such a strong and direct celebrity?! Witherspoon deserved every acting award she received for this role. She is charming when she presents Carter's on-stage persona, deep in the private moments in scenes she shares quietly with Phoenix and expressive throughout. I've never seen Witherspoon so graceful and controlled in a film before, but her discipline pays off and she makes a faithful portrayal of June Carter.

Walk The Line has been wrongly billed as a musical. It is not. There is a heavy emphasis on music in this movie, but characters do not break into song to express feelings they are not otherwise feeling, exposit plot or move the story along. This is a biography and a drama and it is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good character-driven story. After seeing Walk The Line, it's hard to imagine anyone else will recreate a Cash/Carter story again soon; the bar is set so high.

For other biography films, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Life Of Emile Zola


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed.

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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