Believable performances give Cash biopic genuine feel

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Walk the Line
Twentieth Century Fox, 2005
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold
Rated PG-13, 136 min.
Biography/drama

Biopics are a difficult thing to put on-screen. It’s no easy task to distill someone’s life into a two-hour movie and retain the narrative focus a film needs to stay fresh and snappy once you pass the 90-minute mark. There’s also the added difficulty of telling a story that a good portion of the audience already knows the ending of. “Walk the Line,” the new biopic about the life of country legend Johnny Cash, neatly avoids these pitfalls by focusing on the love story between Cash and fellow country singer June Carter.

“Walk the Line” starts off during Cash’s childhood when his brother is killed in a power-tool-related mishap. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, “Signs”) grows into a quiet yet tempestuous young man who quickly becomes a country superstar. He begins touring with a lot of other famous singers of the day; Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the beautiful and charming June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, “Cruel Intentions”). There is an instant chemistry between the two, although it is complicated by their respective marriages and Cash’s growing addictions.

“Walk the Line’s” key attribute is its stars, Phoenix and Witherspoon. Phoenix internalizes Cash’s temper masterfully, and presents to us a man haunted by demons that he keeps a very tight rein on almost all the time. Besides occasional outbursts, the only time we really see Cash cut loose is when he sings, and Phoenix reveals the kind of blistering intensity that made the real Cash a legend. Witherspoon also shines as June Carter. She balances Carter’s perky and cute stage persona with her more subdued real personality, and captures Carter’s complex feelings of isolation and guilt beautifully. The two leads also have wonderful romantic chemistry.

In addition to turning in astonishing performances, Phoenix and Witherspoon are also called upon to perform the songs of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Both do well, but Phoenix truly distinguishes himself. Phoenix seems to be channeling Cash himself, and sounds almost exactly like him.

The movie moves along at a brisk clip and has a stronger throughline than most biopics. The narrative never strays to far from the love story that is taking place between Cash and Carter. There are subplots involving Cash’s addiction, his unresolved issues with his father, and Carter’s plight as a divorced woman in a time when divorce was much less accepted. All of these subplots are well balanced and ultimately serve to enhance the love story.

I found “Walk the Line” to be a bit more interesting than the standard biopic. The first reason is its focus on a love story rather than the story of a life. The second is that, instead of just having a great actor play the lead, there are two great actors working as a team to sell the movie. Instead of a love interest whose sole function is to support the lead, we have a love interest with their very own character arc. It is the story of Johnny Cash, but it’s also just a heck of a good story. The main interest of many biopics is the life of the famous person they’re about, but this one winds up working in its own right. It would be just as engaging if Johnny Cash and June Carter were fictional characters.