Cash on Delivery

Washington City Paper | November 18, 2005
Walk the Line begins with a train running outside California’s Folsom Prison, its chugging morphing into the thick bass of “Cocaine Blues.” But you don’t get to hear the song, at least not yet. Writer-director James Mangold saves that particular re-creation for the film’s last chapter, when the late Johnny Cash gives his famous concert at the clink. And as performed by Joaquin Phoenix, it’s as soul-lifting as a number about doin’ drugs and shootin’ your woman down can be.

Yes, kids, we have another Ray. Nearly to the letter, actually: Walk the Line, based on Cash’s two autobiographies and co-written by Gill Dennis, spans roughly the same time period as Taylor Hackford’s Oscar-winning Ray Charles biopic—the mid-’40s to the late ’60s—and also focuses on the childhood death of a brother, followed by the singer’s determined rise from poverty to fame, then the subsequent debilitating drug addiction and domestic problems. It’s all capped, naturally, with a triumphant return.

But few viewers are likely to care about the similarities in the beloved artists’ made-for-the-movies stories. After all, this is a story arc that even VH1 has mastered. So let’s talk leads. Physically, Phoenix doesn’t have the striking resemblance to his subject that made Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Charles eerie. But he does duplicate Cash’s world-weary stare and magnetic stage presence well enough to disappear into the role—and without any forever-worn sunglasses to hide behind. (His co-star, on the other hand, though sufficiently charming, might as well have “REESE WITHERSPOON” stamped on her forehead.) Phoenix also does Foxx one better by singing Cash’s songs himself, a ridiculously risky move in portraying an icon whose voice was the thing.

But damn if the boy doesn’t pull it off. Phoenix’s baritone is deep, rich, and remarkably similar to the legend’s: Close your eyes during his rendition of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and see who comes to mind. In fact, the T Bone Burnett–produced musical performances are thrilling all around: “Jackson,” “Get Rhythm,” “Juke Box Blues.” Mangold loves to plant his camera either right in front of his actors’ faces or just behind them, aimed toward the audience. Whether it’s with Cash, wife June Carter Cash (Witherspoon, who sings more impressively than she acts), or frequent touring partner Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) onstage, Mangold’s claustrophobic style captures all the sweat, fun, and electricity of a good live show, the audience in a frenzy, the performers over the moon.

It’s just the kind of charged environment in which two people could fall in love. When they’re singing together, Phoenix’s Johnny and Witherspoon’s June certainly do radiate a chemistry befitting the performers’ 35 soulmated years together. But offstage, the attraction disappears—and because Walk the Line is less a profile of Cash than a chronicle of his developing relationship with Carter, this weakness isn’t insignificant. Cash had been a fan of hers since he was a kid, and when they meet as peers some 20 years later, he’s flat-out smitten by Carter’s good looks, perky personality, and quick intellect. They get to know each other better during multi-act tours that also include amphetamine dispenser Elvis: Cash casts stalkeresque stares and makes “baby”-heavy requests that Carter keep him company—and that’s about it.

Cash’s onstage charisma alone doesn’t seem like enough to draw the level-headed, twice-divorced Carter in, but as portrayed here he doesn’t have much else to offer. A negligent family man who’s also a hot-headed, slurring drunk and drug addict does not a thinking woman’s dreamboat make. Even when Carter turns merciful and decides to help Cash kick his habits, you can’t feel the love. There’s never a moment in which it’s clear the two have fallen into that celebrated ring of fire.

Speaking of which, Walk the Line’s worst scene is the genesis of that Carter-penned song: In a car but too distraught to drive, she leans on the wheel and whispers to herself, “It burns...burns...burns!” The composition of Cash’s songs is far more exhilarating, especially “Folsom Prison Blues,” a single that emerges quietly, with Cash bending over a guitar and tentatively sussing out the lyrics. It’s later performed for Sam Phillips, who’s unimpressed with the singer’s initial attempt at gospel and demands something original. Cash, of course, brings it—and so does Phoenix, cramming what seems like all the animosity and despair in the world into his delivery. This scene alone makes up for Walk the Line’s flaws, brilliantly capturing the moment that the Man in Black was born.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100