A pair of remarkable performances bolster 'Walk the Line'

by Caitlin Kelly | 11/22/05 6:00am

Up-and-coming musicians, unimaginable successes and catastrophic falls, critically lauded biopics which chronicle these successes and falls -- all are a dime a dozen in the entertainment world. Early on in the new film about Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line," Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), founder of Sun Records, interrupts Cash's audition when Cash begins to play a tired gospel song that was airing on the radio in 1955. After Phillips' interjection, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) breaks into his signature sound, in the same manner as every other musician finding his or her own unique sound in every other movie of this sort.

In the lucrative Hollywood race for the Oscar, the biopic has become standard fare for the holiday movie season; with this increasingly prevalent trend, the trajectory from humble beginnings to unimaginable fame and fortune has begun to parody itself. This is especially apparent when the subject of the film is a musician; "Walk the Line" has the misfortune to come barely a year after "Ray," about the life of Ray Charles, and the CBS miniseries Elvis. Childhood tragedy? Check. Montage chronicling newfound fame and success? Check. Relationships succumbing to the stress of the tour? Check. Drug use? Check. Marketable soundtrack? Check.

What then, if anything, makes "Walk the Line" worth seeing? That would be June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon. While Johnny Cash's life and career -- his struggle with his past, his drug use, his prolific musicianship -- are interesting enough, the dynamics of his relationship with Carter provide the film with plot tension and emotional weight. The movie's success lies in the strong performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon as well as the intelligent depiction of their ups and downs.

Jamie Foxx played the blind Ray Charles, while Nicole Kidman wore a big prosthetic nose in "The Hours" -- Oscars for both of them. Unfortunately for Phoenix, the role of Cash offers no such headline-grabbing gimmick. Yet fortunately for the audience, he still delivers a performance as magnificent and simultaneously understated as the "Man in Black" himself. When Phoenix's Cash looks at the world around him, you can see the words and phrases twisting into poetry behind his dark brooding eyes. When he looks at Carter, the desire and longing is palpable, and Witherspoon reciprocates with an equally moving and believable performance. Left alone together onscreen, these two radiate a chemistry that is responsible for the best scenes of the movie.

In stark contrast to Cash, who lives as if rules do not apply to him, Carter's struggle lies in her commitment to the bonds of marriage, motherhood and Christianity, all the while longing for a friend who's increasingly unable to care for himself. I hate to sound like an abstinence campaign, but her refusals of Cash's advances are just as sexy as the one bedroom scene in the film. Yet even that bedroom scene exemplifies the film's treatment of the relationship in general, as the romantic morning-after is interrupted by a distressed phone call from Carter's daughter and another instance of Cash's pill popping.

Opening at Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded his best-selling album, the movie flashes back in order to chart Cash's rise to fame. This is where the film tends to lag, mirroring movies like "Ray" and episodes of VH1's "Behind the Music," a bit too much for its own good. Things pick up once Cash meets Carter and the two begin to overcome the obstacles faced by two already-married people ostensibly meant for each other.

When Johnny struggles with his own sense of worth, even as a young child (Flashback? Check), his brother tells him, "You can't help nobody if you can't tell 'em the right story." Director and writer James Mangold made a wise a decision to focus the plot on the stormy relationship between Cash and Carter instead of strictly on Cash's musical career. Mangold's mature portrayal of love is refreshing in a world where the disintegration of relationships is fodder for tabloid headlines and late-night talk-show jokes. It is painful to watch the divorces and losses of both characters, compounded by the judgment of perfect strangers that is an indelible part of living in the public eye. This story arc is more emotionally satisfying and also more unique than another rags-to-riches-to-rehab fairy tale.

Redemption does play an important role in patching up Cash's relationships and his own self-esteem. The concert at Folsom Prison serves as Cash's return to form -- he has cleaned up his act, found his black shirt and realized that his songs offer just as much deliverance for some, particularly inmates, as the gospel hymns he auditioned in the beginning of the film. This new leaf in Cash's life, one that finally allows Carter to accept his repeated marriage proposals, is the climax of the film, not the commercial successes that followed.

Although there is something inherently fantastic about a story played out on stages and music halls across America, "Walk the Line" is also a refreshingly candid look at the love and loss of two stars of country music. Just as Johnny Cash's enduring relationship with June Carter turns out to be his salvation, so too does it work as the saving grace of the whole film, especially as it is embodied in the spectacular performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon.