Appellate Judge James A. Stewart kept being interrupted by rings of fire while watching this two-disc set. No, wait a minute, those were rings of phone.
"You're a good man—and God has given you a second chance to make things right, Johnny."—June Carter (Reese Witherspoon)
Yes, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon really did their own singing; the two stars worked out their pipes with T-Bone Burnett for half a year, IMDb notes. The scene where Johnny Cash proposes to June Carter on stage in Ontario was drawn from life, too, according to Wikipedia. No, Wikipedia says, Cash didn't do any serious jail time, although he did a few one-nighters in the pokey here and there.
Now for the movie. If you've seen it, you might want to skip down to my discussion of the bells and whistles, since this is Walk the Line: Two-Disc DVD Collector's Edition. DVD Verdict is also reviewing the regular widescreen edition.
Facts of the Case
As the movie opens at Folsom Prison in 1968, the camera tracks through the nearly-empty grounds and cells. It's quiet at first, but there's some noise picking up intensity as we get closer to the mess hall. The prisoners have escaped, but only psychologically. They're stomping and clapping to a performance by Johnny Cash.
Young JR Cash wants to go fishing with his brother, but his brother has to finish up some work with a circular saw. JR goes on to the fishin' hole, but he's soon accosted by his father, who wants him to come home immediately. There's blood on his father's clothes and bloody rags in the house when he arrives. His brother has had an accident with the saw. "Do you hear the angels?" the teen asks as he lays dying.
"The devil did this. He took the wrong son," Ray Cash (Robert Patrick, The X-Files) sobs as he mourns his son, who was going to grow up to become a preacher. His father's still mad a few years later when we see JR leaving for an Army stint. When his mother tells him to be careful, Ray snipes, "There ain't gonna be no battles. He's going to Germany; the war's in Korea."
After the war, Cash tries his hand at door-to-door sales, getting a lot of doors slammed in his face. After a long day of not selling appliances, he sees a recording studio and goes to the open back door to take a look. The rest is…Wait, on this particular day, one more door gets slammed in Cash's face. Still, he does get his chance later.
The movie goes on to reveal the ongoing conflicts in the life of the Man in Black: his difficult relationship with father Ray, his love for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde) while married to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin, Ed), his battle with amphetamine addiction, and his battles with suits who wanted to tone down his style (who generally come across like the clueless advisors in a Bob Newhart standup routine, enough so that I wished Witherspoon had tapped her one-time co-star for a bit part here).
Walk the Line follows Cash through the stormy times of his life, wrapping up in 1968 with rainbows on the horizon.
Fitting even half the life story of Johnny Cash into a movie that's only 135 minutes long took a lot of shoehorning. In the commentary, director James Mangold points out that he "wanted the movie to move as pell-mell fast as it could" in places; sometimes he moved too fast. If you're not already familiar with the Man in Black's life story, you might want to read up. For me, it helped that I listened to an audio book of The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner a couple of months before watching Walk the Line. You might also want to check out Cash's two autobiographical volumes, The Man in Black and Cash: An Autobiography.
It helps that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon share thoughts as Johnny Cash and June Carter so well that you'd swear they were really in love. If you just go with the dialogue, Vivian's icy "June, stay clear of my children" when June greets the Cash youngsters after a show doesn't make sense. Reading the looks between Johnny and June as they sing "It Ain't Me, Babe" on stage—as a horrified Vivian watches with her kids from the audience—tells a different story. When Cash realizes that he needs help to beat the pills, he never says so—but you know it from the look he gives June and, from her response, you see she understands.
In Walk the Line, the tragic romance of Johnny and June often plays out on stage. Even in their first meeting, when Cash literally bumps into her before going on stage (and gets his guitar caught in her dress), she's joking about it with an emcee as Cash fumbles to unhook her. Even his boozing and drug abuse reach a crisis point before an audience, with June looking on in horror while Johnny starts a show under the influence, stumbling and crashing around before collapsing on stage. These scenes are a bit surreal, but they serve as a metaphor for two public lives. They also make the rapport between Phoenix and Witherspoon a vital part of the movie.
Joaquin Phoenix didn't get the Oscar for this one, but I did eventually start to believe him when he said, "Hi, I'm Johnny Cash." It takes a while to suspend disbelief, but that appears to be part of Phoenix's plan, gradually growing into Cash's larger-than-life personality to show how the real man grew into a legend. The transformation begins in Cash's first record-label audition, as the executive asks the neophyte singer for "something different. Something real." Cash scraps the Gospel songs he came with, auditioning instead with "Folsom Prison Blues." At first, his style is tentative, but the familiar voice and manner of Cash takes over—and wins over his first fan, Sam Phillips. Phoenix's portrayal gives Cash a mythic quality that makes it no surprise that the legend signed off on Phoenix's casting shortly before his death.
The Academy already thanked Reese Witherspoon for her performance; there's not much more I can say to top that. Her small, believable looks and gestures as June Carter do a great deal to flesh out the singer's life, whether she's trading looks with Johnny on stage or greeting a fan in a store, only to be told sharply that "divorce is an abomination." Her June reveals an underlying tension and insecurity under the easy joking and loving looks.
Walk the Line often plays like the concert film we wish someone had actually made, back in the early days of Cash's career. There's no real substitute for the golden voices depicted here, but you get good approximations of Johnny Cash, June Carter, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis from the actors themselves here. There's even an Elvis impersonator here.
Director James Mangold took care to use authentic locations throughout the film. Walk the Line mostly looks natural, with the occasional artsy shot, like Johnny walking on a path between cornfields as he heads toward the bus stop to begin his trip to Germany. He gets up close and personal with the concert shots, always keeping the focus on Johnny and June. The look of the film is excellent overall and that 5.1 Surround soundtrack didn't disappoint.
Now we get to the bells and whistles, otherwise known as extras or bonus features:
The first disc's special features are available elsewhere. Director James Mangold's commentary goes into the background on Johnny Cash's life and how the movie got made. He considers Cash's unique philosophy of life, that "against his nature, he was fighting to be good," a philosophy that made Cash an effective preacher. He also has insights into the acting styles of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. This disc also has 10 deleted scenes. Most aren't essential, but one called "Broken Record" has a cameo by John Carter Cash and some tender scenes with Johnny and Vivian that the movie could have used.
Disc Two contains features exclusive to this edition. First up, there are three extended music scenes, so you get to see and hear the songs in video style without any bits cut out. These are good—and "Jackson" is darned good, since it gives us more of the interplay between Johnny and June.
Next we have three featurettes. "Celebrating the Man in Black: The Making of Walk the Line" has some good moments, but the commercial breaks signal that this one ran on TV when the movie came out. "Folsom, Cash, and the Comeback" and "Ring of Fire: The Passion of Johnny & June" each tackle some element of Johnny Cash's life and career. The three segments feature other country stars and historians talking about the lives of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Hearing the Statler Brothers or Merle Haggard talk about Cash's prison concerts is great, but the features are clipped too short. These featurettes also disappoint by relying on clips from the movie to illustrate their points. I'd much rather have seen clips of the real Johnny Cash and June Carter in concert as these stories unfolded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some parts of Cash's life get lost in the shuffle. We see very little of how JR fell for Vivian in the first place, only seeing her complain and suffer as her husband swoons over June. While Ginnifer Goodwin's performance makes Vivian sympathetic, the script often seems to treat her as an inconvenience. Plaintive lines like "These are my prescriptions from my doctor. I need them" drop hints of how a Christian singer could see his life spin so far out of control, but the film's vignettes don't convey Cash's life struggles fully. Thus, the power of the performances here might be lost on you if you're unfamiliar with the Man in Black.
Using the circular saw in Folsom Prison as a framing device is one of the oldest clichés in the cinematic box of tricks, a sudsy touch that's straight out of Kitty Foyle or some other vintage melodrama. A circular saw might be less overdone than a snowglobe, photo, or mirror, but this movie didn't need one more metaphorical trick.
The dual nature of Cash's songs—mixing the Gospel with tragic tales of murder and vengeance—ultimately yields one message, that of redemption. Cash's ultimate message is the theme of Walk the Line as well. I enjoyed it, but wished Mangold would take more time in a few places.
Not guilty. This movie's made for Cash fans—but there must be a lot of them out there. It took in $118.9 million domestically on its way to a global gross of $169.9 million.
Should you buy this version? If you get a special and it's only a couple of extra bucks, it might be worth it to see Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix sing uncut. Still, the basic package is fairly complete without the Disc Two bonuses, and it lacks the Cash footage that would make this set a must-buy.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director James Mangold
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