Walk the Line

2005, Movie, PG-13, 136 mins


James Mangold's chronicle of the wild highs and hard lows of gravel-voiced country-music icon Johnny Cash is conventional to the core but gets a blast of pure, hard-driving energy from Joaquin Phoenix's and Reese Witherspoon's vividly realized performances as the troubled Man in Black and the steady love of his life. It opens in 1968, as the 36-year-old Cash prepares to record a live album at Folsom Prison — his first step back from an attenuated personal and professional flameout — then flashes back to Dyess, Ark., 24 years earlier. Twelve-year-old John (Ridge Canipe) and his slightly older brother, Jack (Lucas Till), quietly nurse dreams of escape from hardscrabble farm life; aspiring preacher Jack studies the Bible by candlelight and John thrills to voices on the radio, especially that of bubbly 15-year-old June Carter, whose family almost single-handedly dragged country music out of the hollers. Their father, Ray (Robert Patrick), drinks, their long-suffering mother (country star Shelby Lynne) retreats into gospel standards from the Heavenly Highway Hymnal, and everything goes to hell when Jack dies in a circular-saw accident. The Devil took the wrong boy, howls the distraught Ray, and by 1955 Johnny is well on his way to proving he really is bad to the bone. Married to his high-school sweetheart (Ginnifer Goodwin) and the father of a growing family, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter takes to the road with a gang of handsome hell-raisers like Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), more than keeping up with their pill-popping, hard-drinking, lady-killing antics. The lone girl on the tour is none other than June Carter, whom Johnny woos through two marriages, one ugly divorce and single motherhood, even as his 10-year determination to win her love shatters his personal life and escalating substance abuse tarnish his professional reputation. Drawn from Cash's Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography and supplemented by Mangold's interviews with Carter and Cash (who died within months of each other in 2003), the film hits the usual rags-to-riches notes: early rejection, fateful audition, initial thrill of success and drug-stained fall. But the draw is Phoenix and Witherspoon: Both do their own singing, and overall the Cash/Carter repertory, including "Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson" and "Ring of Fire," sounds great. Phoenix's voice sometimes wavers, but he compensates with an uncanny evocation of Cash's gloomy, calculated swagger. And while Witherspoon looks nothing like the lanky, raw-boned Carter, she nails her beguiling mix of girlishness, determination, uncertainty and mega-watt charisma. Together the two are hotter than a pepper sprout. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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