There is something really special going on in Walk the Line, but get this around your head before you see it. The movie isn’t about the life of Johnny Cash, it’s about the love in the life of Johnny Cash. That grand passion settled most famously on music and on singer June Carter. Credit director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted, Identity) for plugging in two live wires: Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as the frisky entertainer he performed with and mooned over for ten years before she agreed to marry him. Walk the Line hits all the right grace notes, but if you’re looking for the Cash who wrote the lyric “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die,” he ain’t here, babe.
Luckily, what is here is prime. It’s not just that the two credibly do their own singing — going one up on Jamie Foxx in Ray — they also keep a close watch on the bruised hearts and healing humor of their characters. The script, shaped by Mangold and Gill Dennis from Cash’s books Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, benefits by focusing on the young John and June. It ends in 1968 with Cash, 36, giving his landmark concert at California’s Folsom Prison and June, 38, by his side as she would be until they died within four months of each other in 2003.
We first see John as a child in Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper (Robert Patrick) and his wife (Shelby Lynne). As in Ray, the death of a brother leaves the family reeling. The father lashes out at John, creating scars that don’t fade as he moves through his Air Force stint and marriage to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), who thinks John should stop singing and find a job to support their kids.
It’s an audition for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Sun Records, the Memphis studio known for discovering Elvis, that lights a fire under John’s career. During a series of lively scenes on the road, mixing it up with Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice), Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings, his son) and Jerry Lee Lewis (a killer turn from Waylon Payne), Cash meets June Carter. She comes from country royalty — the Carter family, headed by Mother Maybelle (Sandra Lafferty). June is a firecracker. She meets John backstage when her dress gets tangled in his guitar strings. The comedy routine she makes out of it rings Cash’s register. But she’s married, and so is he.
Out of that sexual tension, the movie emerges. Partnered onstage, John and June burn it up singing duets (“Jackson,” “Time’s A-Wastin’ “). Offstage, he dares a kiss, then backs off, saying he doesn’t know how it happened. “Give yourself credit for something, Mr. Cash,” she counters, blasting him for pretending that things that matter (the rasp in his voice, his penchant for black) are merely accidents.
Phoenix and Witherspoon are dynamite, and their chemistry is palpable. He catches Cash’s guitar-swinging bravado and the hurt in his eyes. When Cash is busted for drug possession, his dad cracks that now John won’t have to pretend so hard that he’s been in jail. Harsh words. Phoenix works miracles in showing the duality in a sensitive man his pals call John and a commodity even he calls Cash. This is a portrait of an artist who bleeds into his music.
And watch out for Witherspoon. She’s hotter than a pepper sprout. But her June is also wise to her limits as a singer and as a woman drawn to the danger in a complex man. The song she wrote for Cash, “Ring of Fire,” sums up his allure and her fear. Divorced, married and divorced again while she waits for John to walk the line, June matures before our eyes, hoping the man she loves will catch up. Witherspoon has nailed it before, notably in Election, but her portrayal of June is astounding in its vitality and richness.This is award-caliber acting, deep and true. Mangold does his best directing yet, blending design and music (produced by T Bone Burnett) into a vivid evocation of an era. There’s no denying the biopic cliches, but Phoenix and Witherspoon jump even those hurdles. It’s going to be hard for audiences and the Academy not to show them some love.