Monday, November 21, 2005

Walk the Line

In his review of Walk the Line, David Denby of the New Yorker noted similarities between this film and last year’s Ray Charles biopic Ray. In both films, a country boy finds fame as a singer by creating a unique sound. Both men suffer the loss of a family member in their youth, and both fight a drug addiction as an adult. Luckily, in all the places that Ray is heavy handed, James Mangold’s Walk the Line offers a soft touch.

A few months ago, the media reported trauma on the set of Walk the Line, stating that Joaquin Phoenix collapsed due to his method acting employment of personal memories of his own brother’s death (we still miss you, River) to channel John Cash’s memories of his older brother’s demise. Phoenix, of course, reported that all of this hooplah was bunk, and I have no doubt he was completely sincere in his rebuttal.

Yet seeing this film, I understand why reporters jumped to such an erroneous conclusion. The scene in which Johnny describes his brother’s death to young June Carter demonstrates the power of Phoenix’s performance. Mangold doesn’t need to demonstrate Johnny’s angst through some daydream of being drowned in water (one of the most ridiculous scenes in Ray). He simply allows Phoenix to act, and the quiet intensity of his performance in this scene makes believers of every audience member: not only is he Johnny Cash, but he is an incredibly moving Johnny Cash.

Ray needed to play up the death of Ray Charles’ brother because the film lacked an emotional core. Ray, in essence, was simply a biopic of a man, without a central relationship to tug our heart strings other than Ray’s many failed relationships. Director Taylor Hackford attempts to cover Ray’s troubled marriage, his relationship with his music managers, his struggle with racism, and his drug addiction. Each element of Ray Charles’ story is only loosely connected in the film.

Walk the Line, however, makes for a more successful movie because at its center, it is a love story. Though Mangold examines Cash’s drug use, his abuse and recovery are continually connected to Cash’s desire for June Carter (overly simplistic, perhaps, but successful storytelling). The film barely mentions Cash’s relationship with his band members, portrays the other women in Cash’s life exclusively through montage scenes, and almost completely overlooks his relationship with his children. Rather than detracting from his portrait of a man, however, these oversights allow Mangold to more deeply develop the main story between Cash and Carter.

Films about famous people are fun to watch because of the adrenaline rush of seeing an unknown become known: usually through a montage of whirlwind concert scenes and screaming fans. But without a strong emotional component, no biopic can truly touch us. Walk the Line employs the cultural mores of the time to make a martyr of June Carter, twice divorced and in love with a married man. Johnny Cash chased June Carter shamelessly, and the film takes full advantage of their profession to create a climactic moment of union for these two star-crossed lovers during a concert. Providing Carter with an understandable and sympathetic conflict makes this moment of union all the more satisfying.

The music is great, too. Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, which means we are spared bad lip synching, thank goodness. The credits offer the only time the audience hears the real Johnny Cash and June Carter sing (reason enough to stick around for the credits). This brief moment of the singers certainly exposes a few discrepancies between the real deal and the actors impersonating: Phoenix’s voice lacks something of the resonance and complexity of Cash’s, while Witherspoon’s sound is simply too pure to replicate Carter. But Phoenix and Witherspoon use their voices to completely embody their characters in the moment of the scene. These concert scenes are less about whether they sound like Cash and Carter than whether you believe them as two people in love, expressing themselves in the only way they can—on stage.

The women in the film do not come off terribly well. Johnny Cash’s mother, who evidences a bit of a personality in the first few moments of the film, barely speaks in the later scenes in which she appears briefly. You’d think she might have some opinion about the terrible breach between her son and husband, but we will never know based on this movie.

June Carter’s dilemma is a uniquely feminine one: moralists condemn her for the actions men get away with every day. When confronted by a shop woman, who criticizes Carter for acting in opposition to her ”good” parents’ teachings by getting divorced, June shamefacedly apologizes for letting down the shop woman, a complete stranger. Though the film doesn’t much comment upon this glaring gender inequality, moments like these deepen the audience’s sense of the high stakes for Carter in this love affair.

Johnny Cash’s first wife doesn’t receive as much attention in the film. Real life daughter of John and Vivian Cash, Kathy, condemned the film’s portrayal of her mother, and she has good reason to do so. The film portrays Vivian as a demanding nag, refusing Cash's efforts to connect with her by sharing his career triumphs. When Vivian declares that she wants from Johnny “all the you promised me!” I squirmed in my seat—every man’s worst nightmare of the crazy, shrewish wife. A film made from Vivian’s perspective would tell a remarkably different story. Rather than make Vivian seem vicious when she tells June Carter to stay the hell away from her children, a film about Vivian would make her seem like a hero, protecting the integrity of her family. But as with other elements of Cash's life, Vivian is sacrificed to better tell the story of Johnny and June. So it goes with art.

Believable and moving performances, exciting concert scenes, understandable obstacles between the lovers, and a thrilling climax make for a pretty darn good movie. In fact, my biggest complaint would be that I want more: Johnny Cash remains something of an enigma and his refusal to leave his wife makes him seem weak and cruel to both his wife and Carter. The film presents him as a man who wanders through life letting things happen to him: as Carter tells him, “you should take credit for something sometime.” Yet the one thing he can own is his persistent pursuit of Carter. Focusing upon this strength in Cash's nature—his devotion to June Carter—the movie succeeds as a love story and entertaining holiday fare.


At 8:06 AM, Blogger Robert said...

Do you think this film reflect the sensibilities of today's country music fan? Would a die-hard country fan think that Carter should have apologized to the shop girl? I would like to see this movie in a movie theater in Kingsland, Arkansas and watch the audience react...

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Robert said...

I heard "When the Man Comes Around" over the holidays, a song that wasn't featured in the film, and ostensibly about Judgement Day. Lyrics, "Everyone won't be treated the same," and, "Let the filthy be filthy still," tell me that Cash thought he was not the man he should have been, that the price he paid for his failings was his death, he might not have believed he was joining June.


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