Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die - a fact that Walk the Line owns up to grudgingly, like a liar caught dead to rights. The film wants to tell a story in league with Cash's biblical ballads, about a mythic, threatening hero who could call down plagues of locusts onto the cottonfields with just his voice and mean temper. But The Man in Black was an entertainer, savvy about his image, and involved enough in the making of this film to make certain that his self-destructive screen persona never deals anything more than superficial blows to himself or others. The hero might curse himself or his women, but never God or his mama. Other characters might question Cash's sanity or his virtue, but never his talent or his most obvious flaws, like his penchant for relentless self-promotion. You won't hear, for example, about the time a news magazine dubbed his home ‘Cashville’ for all the shameless hawking done there, including two-dollar-a-pop peeks at his gold records and a Cash cookbook.
Walk The Line begins at the beginning, in the cottonfields of Depression-era Arkansas, where young Johnny watches his older brother succumb to agonizing death after an accident on a rusty circle saw. The blood doesn't literally splatter onto the pages of his Heavenly Highway Hymns, but it might as well. It's here where the boy realizes that abiding by those heavenly lyrics will not save him from the wrath of either God or his sharecropper father with the diamond-hard eyes. He's quickly saying goodbye to all that and doing a long perp walk through the cotton rows toward a lonely bus station. From here on, the film’s music will spiral down into something less than perfect morality; as the world gets more complicated and innocence is shed, the sharecropper’s gospel boogie will give way to hormonal rockabilly and later, riotous lockdown blues at Folsom Prison.
The heavy burden of playing Johnny Cash’s ideal of Johnny Cash – the film was informed by two big autobiographies - is met surprisingly well by Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance not predicted by any of his previous work. The flaky, pubescent warble that’s served him well playing villains and pukes is missing in action here. Was it a con all along? In its place is a well-heeled musical instrument. Phoenix can’t replicate the timber lungs and barrel chest of the man himself, but he’s a skillful enough performer to make the difference in their tonal depths irrelevant. In a little gem of a scene set at the legendary Sun Studios, Sam Phillips (played by Dallas Roberts) tries to pry Cash away from his gospel B-sides and move him towards music that fits him - something the audience will believe, the way they believe it when Elvis sings about poontang. Cash is taught to express himself through his story-telling musical fantasies, and eventually he's ready to take a place alongside Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other whiskey-drenched degenerates chasing hoop skirts and busting beer bottles against their Cadillac fins.
An unknown actor named Waylon Payne plays The Killer in all his french-fry haired, piano-abusing glory, and a relative of Waylon Jennings plays Waylon Jennings for an extra kick. These legend cameos are little more than walk-ons, but good for a few laughs and some nice musical flourishes. There's an especially nice moment when Cash walks off stage and hands over to Elvis, who promptly eats his lunch, but the scene is over in the blink of an eye. Since there are so many songs to be sung throughout the film, it wouldn't do to give over too much performance time to anyone but Cash. In a film that's intended to puff up a lone gunman image, the director can't be faulted for trying to limit the screen time of anyone who might diminish either Cash's stage persona or his prison-worthy quotient. (If there had been a need to cast Jerry Lee's wife, Harry Potter's Emma Watson would have been too old for the part)
The musical performances by Phoenix are stellar, and he matches them with a constant, shaky intensity that grows violent as Cash's drug and alcohol problems escalate. There's a moment when he fumbles so hard trying to pull a pill bottle out of his pants that it looks like he's going to pull out a gun. But as good as he is, he's matched pound for pound by a legally brunette Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. Vocal flourish is not required of Witherspoon in this part, but delivered anyway. As part of a family of troubadours traveling around the Grand Ole Opry circuit, she uses an ear-melting, Appalachian-tinged kiddie voice as part of a hick comedy routine, and combines it with girlish enthusiasm to misdirect the audience away from her musical shortcomings. When she has to give insightful criticism and sage advice later in the film, the cheese-grater voice is dialed down, of course. Witherspoon also belts out her own songs in the film, like Phoenix, both apparently without any digital foolery.
Her role shifts with the demands of the plot, going from road companion to road companion-slash-love interest, even though Cash has a wife and children at home during most of the events covered in the film. History is written by the Grammy winners, as they say, and first wife Vivianne is portrayed as something between a nag and a joyless monster who doesn't appreciate that she's hit the jackpot with a superstar-in-the-making for a husband. Much energy is spent showing that both were in it for the long haul, but after one too many screaming matches and drag-out fights, the movie concedes what it has been hinting at all along - that this relationship ain't gonna work. After Vivianne is finally out of the picture, June stops rejecting Johnny's late-night, hotel room advances toward her and becomes his savior, both musically - she seems to speak in a language of song titles, at one point telling him that he needs to 'walk the line' - and physically, as when she resorts to chasing away his drug supplier with a shotgun in a moment of here's-how-we-do-things-down-South gusto.
It’s easy to see why there’s an audience for a hero-worship film about Johnny Cash. As the promotion for Walk the Line reminds us, there was a decades-long effort in the 'Nashville' community to ignore Cash for no reason other than that he showed no interest in pleasing them or dancing to their tune. That doesn't mean his own flaws should be ignored - and this movie isn't nearly ambitious enough to take those on - but it's certainly worth a few points in the plus column. For those who are appalled by the deep-seated defeatism and neutered-clown persona of modern country music, and wish it would just go away, it might be satisfying on some level to remember that Cash and his contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis are largely seen today not as founding fathers of country music, but as inaugural graduates of the school of rock.