Walk the Line

(James Mangold, USA, 2005)


I would like to think that director James Mangold (Heavy, 1996) was inspired by a particular detail while fashioning this splendid biopic of Johnny Cash: the odd but exciting way the performer would spontaneously hold his acoustic guitar up to the microphone set for his vocals, thus creating an unruly surge of sound as he furiously strummed.

Surges of sound recur systematically throughout Walk the Line – for it is a film about "lived music", music as it is listened to, played on instruments (the introduction of drums into the band marks an important plateau), bumped into, walked around (with Mangold doing some breathtaking inclusions of his actors singing live). The film begins with an idiosyncratic detail: a bare view of Folsom Prison, with only the faint, muffled thump thump of bass and drums audible. Shot by shot, Mangold takes us into the prison, and each time the music becomes a little clearer. But Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) himself has not yet hit the stage for his most famous concert, so the band riffs on a single chord while the crowd grows restless and the singer stands backstage, rattled and pensive.

From that point, the film leaps into a pointillistic account of Cash's life from childhood to the late '60s. The approach is linear, but Mangold is not afraid of using bold ellipses (à la Eastwood's Bird [1988]) when he needs to. The script (co-written by Mangold and Gill Dennis, whose credits range from Murch's Return to Oz [1985] to several docos) cannot avoid the sensational highpoints of the music star's troubled life – an unloving Dad (Robert Patrick), addiction to pills, arrest by the cops, sex with young fans, refinding of his spiritual roots – but it firmly orients the narrative around the less familiar relationship between Cash and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). It is, ultimately, an intensely romantic film.

Biopics either try to glumly play it straight with the well-known sensational material, or they go for a merrier pop approach in the vein of What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993), compressing an entire life into a devil-may-care verse-chorus structure. Walk the Line takes a careful running jump at its subject – firstly, by taking a manageable slice of the life (much the same slice as in Scorsese's contemporaneous Dylan doco, No Direction Home [2005]), and secondly, by tweaking the presentation of potential clichés wherever possible. (Even the biopic's penchant for first times that set the course of life-long destiny – first pill popped, first look at June – are not too overloaded.) One can argue with some of the results – Cash's rebel politics are played down almost entirely, the religion aspect is unconvincingly managed (as if Mangold were simply not too interested in it), the final "happy family" freeze-frame is a little dull (after the great penultimate scene) and the attempt to assert June's gender equality as the composer of "Ring of Fire" – shades of Purple Rain (1984) there! – does not quite cut it. But there is much to admire and celebrate in this film, which is certainly Mangold's finest to date.

Walk the Line resists becoming an all-out portrait of Cash's dark side (the point is well-made that he wasn't quite the jailbird that popular myth took him to be, and that "Folsom Prison Blues" was inspired not by hard-won experience but a handy newsreel). It also refrains from turning his life story into some generalised comment on American masculinity. Nonetheless, there are many striking moments where the film comes close to the mood and tone of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). Both films turn on the relationship between the "ritual" spectacle offered by a celebrity in public and the far less ordered life he leads in private with family and friends. In Raging Bull, Scorsese minimised the boxing action in the ring in order to suggest that Jake La Motta had turned his domestic life into a violent "arena". Cash, as he is presented in Walk the Line, does the opposite: he tries to live his personal life, as much as possible, on stage. Key moments – finding self-confidence, blacking out from booze and drugs, stealing a kiss, proposing marriage – occur right in the spotlight, where he likes it.

All the same, Cash is not quite a narcissist or an exhibitionist who "plays to the crowd", needing its applause for his self-affirmation. From the first to last performance we see, Cash never loses his nervousness and awkwardness as he prepares to hit the stage – and indeed, his famous tag line, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" has a splendidly un-slick ring to it. Mangold brilliantly films the concert scenes in such a way as to rarely show the crowd (they hardly even register as on off-screen massed sound): Cash is always absorbed in the special "space" created by the song (and Mangold, happily, frequently lets us hear the entire song).

Off-stage, Cash is almost completely dysfunctional. There is a touching scene in which June finds him befuddled in a shop: unsure of what toy to buy his daughter, and clueless about how to post it to her. He lives for his band and for touring; at home, we see him asleep, banging nails into the wall of his sad little "cubby room", or generally at a loss. At one point he does indeed become a raging bull towards his despairing wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), and the destructive impact on the family is all the more palpable for being dramatically understated.

Cash, as presented by the film, has a strangely passive attitude to his own destiny. He becomes the "man in black" because black shirts are the only kind his band members have in common; his ensemble creates its trademark "train tracks" musical style inadvertently, by playing as fast as it can; he gets hooked on pills because they are offered to him (by Elvis, no less!); and when he makes a clumsy pass at June, he apologises by saying it "just happened". June's impact on his life is captured in the stirring moments when she criticises him for "not taking credit" for such actions, good or bad, and for believing that "things just work themselves out" when, in reality, everyone is scampering around working them out for him.

What Phoenix captures, above all, is the touch of madness in Cash: in his eyes, in his stage manner, in his personal exchanges. There is an incredible moment during his impromptu audition performance for a reluctant, worldly Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) – a scene far transcending cornball – when he looks around at his lead guitarist with a mixture of perplexity, aggression and sheer, loony blankness; finally the guy gets the idea to fill in with his soon-to-be-famous solo riff.

Cash is like a strange beast never properly introduced to the world that the rest of us live in. The man we see presented here is someone who, at all times, is choked with raw emotion. High moments of success leave him drained, and frustration in love twists him into a veritable demolition man.

It is telling that the round of high-profile industry awards and nominations in America at the start of 2006 was far more at ease honouring the "urbane" stylings of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote (2005) than the raw nerves touched by Phoenix. But they are equally skilled performances.

© Adrian Martin 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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