Walk the Line uses the real-life stories of country singers Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash - and the astonishing performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon - to conjure a full and lyrical and improbably persuasive tale of love conquering all.
Director James Mangold (who co-wrote the script with Gill Dennis) knows how artists like Cash and the self-deprecating Carter use their emotions as capital, whether they recognize it or not. This movie isn't just about how the saw-accident death of Cash's preacher-in-the-making older brother traumatized him. And it isn't merely about how Cash's father was unable to see that his younger boy hoped to compensate for that loss any way he could.
It's about how those twin tragedies formed a cross that Cash carried throughout his life - the cross that framed the scarred, rebellious sensibility behind such angry, brooding Cash classics as "Folsom Prison Blues." (Lines like "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" made it seem as if Cash was himself a grizzled con.)
Similarly, the movie isn't just about how Carter, wrongly tagged as the weakest singer in the celebrated Carter Family, and later scorned by moralistic country fans as a hussy because of two failed marriages, funneled her underrated creativity into an energetic comic persona. It's about how Carter's emotional collision with Cash - the kind of seismic upheaval that happens once in a lifetime - released all of what made her her.
From the moment they meet, the movie is like one long, beautifully sustained torch song done as a duet. Their marriages and their Christian principles keep them from conjoining. But you know they can't get out of each other's heads, even as they try to keep going. Ginnifer Goodwin portrays Cash's first wife sympathetically as a pretty, traditional woman. She rightly expects her man to partner her as a parent of four girls and to be a pillar of the household. But he is preoccupied with his music even before he breaks through as an artist and meets the woman of his dreams, June Carter.
The movie doesn't demonize Cash for wanting some family of his own before he knows his core identity or his authentic feelings. And the movie doesn't lionize Carter, either: she doesn't know exactly what Cash's demons are. She knows only that if he doesn't get off drugs and change his self-destructive life, he'll be dead before she lets herself love him. After she becomes part of Cash's stage show, their one illicit night sparks her to write the sizzling, almost cautionary love song, "Ring of Fire." But when she stops their liaison right there, she also sends Cash into his worst drug-fueled tailspin. To love him, June's got to save him, and it takes her and her family to do so - including her dad, who's willing to hold Cash's drug dealer off at gunpoint.
What Phoenix and Witherspoon accomplish in this movie is transcendent. They act with every bone and inch of flesh and facial plane, and each tone and waver of their voice. They do their own singing with a startling mastery of country music's narrative musicianship. They're both playing characters who don't know their own depths or strengths, but each has a different starting point.
Phoenix plays Cash as a man who squeezes all the conflicted feelings out of his gut and into his songs until he winds up crushed and empty, desperate for renewal. Witherspoon plays Carter as a woman who creates a sassy and inventive front, then reaches far behind it to express a fusion of spirit and carnality. When Phoenix drops into the resonant register we associate with Cash's prime years, he gives us an extraordinary expression of late-blooming manhood. When Witherspoon as Carter lets her hair down and her voice shout out, she becomes an indelible musical portrait of a woman's instinctual awakening.
Edmund Wilson wrote a book about the roots of art in psychic trauma called The Wound and the Bow. In Walk the Line, Mangold and company give us The Wound and the Fiddle, the Geetar and the Autoharp. And they demonstrate that art can become more powerful when a wound is healed.
Walk the Line (20th Century Fox)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Directed by James Mangold.
Time 135 minutes.