Review: Walk the Line / Johnny Cash
I've always liked Johnny Cash. Among the first albums I bought as an adult was a Greatest Hits cassette tape of Johnny Cash's Greatest Hits. I became a fan all over again when rap producer Rick Rubin ( below ) became Cash's producer, and helped create Johnny's great, late in life, albums.
I looked forward to this movie, but was afraid that they would mess it up. They didn't.
I've read a good bit about Cash, and saw the ( very good ) CMT TV biography that appeared in 2003. I watched the movie with a close eye for historical details. Based on my knowledge, they got the details right. More on that later.
The film begins with images of the Cash family picking cotton in the Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas. The death of Johnny's much-loved older brother Jack was a devastating loss to Johnny.
The movie shows Cash's father, Ray Cash, as a cold, nasty, emotionally-distant, unsympathetic figure. The first word the Ray Cash in the movie says to Johnny after Jack's death are a stern " where have you been? " . When Johnny leaves home for military service, the father does not even shake his hand. When Johnny Cash went through his hell of drug abuse, the movie father response offers no support, only criticism and contempt.
Cash's mother Carrie has a smaller movie role than does father Ray. She encourages Johnny in his career.
Joaquin Phoenix was chosen by Cash himself to play the lead role. Phoenix's performance is astonishing. He has some physical resemblance to the square-jawed Cash, which does not hurt. He captures the violent rages that seized Cash, the desperation that came upon him when the pills ran out.
Phoenix also sings. Sings well, too. He nails Cash's deep growl of a voice and his stage manner. Joaquin Phoenix could play in a club and would not embarass himself.
He also captures Cash's deep masculine, at times dangerous, manner. That's not an easy thing to describe, but anyone who saw Cash knows what I'm talking about. There may not be another actor who could have pulled it off.
Reese Witherspoon is excellent in the role of June Carter Cash. She captures June's cheerful nature. And the internal conflict that June had in fighting her attraction for Johnny Cash when first when both were married, then years later when only he was married and on strung out on pills. Like Phoenix, she sings all the songs her character had in the movie, and does well.
The movie only touches only lightly on Cash's Christian faith, a vastly larger factor in his real life than is shown here.
Johnny Cash's daughter Kathy is critical of the movie's portrayal of her mother, Cash's first wife, Vivian. Kathy says that the movie portrayed Vivian as " the mad little psycho who hated his career. That's not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home."
I don't agree that that is how Vivian was portrayed. I think she was portrayed as someone who was overwhelmed by the career ( and who said that she did not want to talk about the tour when Cash returned from a trip ) , who was in a world that she did not really understand when Cash hit it big, and whose response to Cash's pill-popping and his open affair with June was anger at times and emotional withdrawal at other times. That's all understandable and it does not make the character a psycho. She is not a fun, sympathetic figure here, but I don't know how she could have been. But Kathy was there, and none of the rest of us were, so if she thinks Vivian was treated unfairly she should be listened to.
Kathy also thinks that the movie was unfairly harsh to Cash's father. Again, impossible to comment. The father in this movie was a bum. Impossible to say how that squares with the real Ray Cash.
This film is married boy meets married girl, boy has long bout of drug addiction, boy wins girl finally when both are free. The movie ends somewhat abruptly when June accepts his proposal onstage in Toronto, when both are free. But what happens in between makes for a good movie. There is enough of Johnny Cash's life remaining to make at least one other movie.
I liked this movie, and will see it again. I may well read one of the books about Cash too.