Walk the Line

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/02/05 10:08:56

"Reese Witherspoon is great when she's actually given something worthwhile."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

My mother and her parents like country music, unlike most of the kids I knew in the Maine suburb where I grew up. Because of this, I tended to dismiss whole swaths of music as boring, because I was a kid and this was stuff old people listened too. So, it wound up taking me far too long to recognize the actual coolness of folks like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.

Cash, as this movie will tell you, grew up a dirt-poor sharecropper in the deep South, put in some time in the Air Force, married his high-school sweetheart (Ginnifer Goodwin), then moved to Memphis hoping to break into the music business. He succeeded, but the time on the road and the drugs he scored there destroyed his marriage. On the plus side, it's there he meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), who will become his muse, his on-stage partner, and the love of his life.

Walk the Line is a love story disguised as rock & roll biography. Indeed, there's something kind of perfunctory about the way the standard parts of a musician's life story are trotted out - the early poverty, the early concert footage in dingy little rooms, the disapproving father, the drugs. I imagine that the life of a touring musician is punishing over the long haul and makes stimulants especially tempting, but you don't really get that here; it's as if drug abuse has become such an expected part of the rock star narrative that they can be treated as something that just sort of inevitably happens, as opposed to something Johnny gets anything out of.

Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Johnny is part of that. There's nothing at all wrong with his performance, but I tended to find myself at a loss as to what makes this guy specifically Johnny Cash, or at least unique. Not always, mind, and he did sell the character well enough that I bought him doing his own singing during the concert scenes. Still, there were a number of solid if somewhat generic performances - Ginnifer Goodwin as Cash's first wife, Robert Patrick as the father who's never impressed with his son, a number of decent imitations of Sun Records artists - that after a while, they all sort of run together, like the various siblings and children that appear and make no impression as individuals during scenes of family strife.

But remember that bit about it being a love story in biopic clothing? Those threads are the ones where the filmmakers pull out Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, and that's where Walk the Line starts to stand out from the crowd. June Carter comes off as almost too good to be true; she grew up touring in her family's act, and somehow seems to have come out of early fame relatively unscathed, although her confidence is spotty - she's a total pro on stage, and is smart enough to steer clear of self-destructive behavior after hours, but doesn't really believe in her own talent until Johnny talks her up. She falls for him just as hard as he does for her, but she's initially married and has been raised to well too say to hell with propriety; later she's wary of a man who is such an obvious potential train wreck. So June is the one who is intriguing to watch, to see how close this smart woman will come to succumbing to a temptation that is potentially disastrous. Every scene with her has delicious denial and internal negotiation.

It's also a powerful reminder of how good Ms. Witherspoon is when she's not in absolute crap. She's cashed so many paychecks for playing ditzes or ambitious girls who just need their heart softened by the right man in the past few years that one can be forgiven for forgetting that she brings not-inconsiderable talent to the table. She seems to nail all the individual and specific aspects of her character - a mother, a celebrity, and a devout Christian (of the hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner stripe) with equal parts self-assurance and fear - in every scene. The film probably can't be hers alone, but it absolutely works best when it's about Johnny & June, rather than just Johnny Cash.

And when they're together, they shine. Even if you know what we're told just before the end credits roll, it's fascinating to watch them circle each other, to see how and why things turn out the way they do. Ultimately, the movie becomes more satisfying in retrospect because the rock star stuff feeds their mating dance, so even though it starts as being a decent movie about a popular musician, it becomes a strong one about a love that doesn't run smooth.

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