Walk the LineDirector: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin
usical biopics are all too aware of the genre’s common faults. The films are either far too fraternally recumbent to the affected past-life cornerstones of their history altering heroes, or focus too heavily on the anthems that an honest-to-goodness examination of personality is lost. Recently, pictures have been beside themselves in trying to break free of these constraints—unorthodox presentations have become the standard. The constantly artificial Ray stirred up audiences by illustrating the previously unknown behind-the-scenes existences of musical legends, for instance. James Mangold, who’s directorial filmography ranges from the sad-to-soaring Heavy, to the hokey mystery/thriller Identity, is driven enough by his widely announced respect for John Cash as both a man and a musician to be able to cast astray these commonplace anticipations and beget a film that hold love and peace through its own fabricated grit.
Early scenes of John’s broken home, with eternally enraged pa (Robert Patrick) fitting into the stereotype of the angry parent of a musically gifted child obviously shed light on why Cash dips into illegal narcotics later in the film. The predictably executed death scene of John’s elder brother Jack (Lucas Till) and the reaction from father Ray (“Where you been?”) are tame in tone yet consequentially broader in emotional expanse due to tight, fully realized performances by all key players. A crow-infested Folsom Prison opens the film, introducing the reoccurring symbol of saw blades as both a device in which Cash supposedly lives his life (on the edge), and a descriptor of the man’s perpetually personal and distinct musical style (“sharp like a razor,” as told by June Carter in a punctual scene). With prison inmates ungracefully parading around the dining hall to the acoustics of Cash’s faithful backup band, a sense of sureness for time and place rinse out the sour vapor left by family arguments, drug problems, arrest, and the departing of Cash’s paranoid, stuck-up wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) and dissipated children. After writing tunes involved with the life of man forced to live in jail, and actually doing the hard time himself, Cash acquires comfort lost from his childhood years. This is where Mangold’s direction particularly shines—showcasing his knack for framing up sweaty-faced Cash in ways sure to evince undaunted benevolence.
Unerring persona replications from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon brew up physical/spiritual on-screen music-making as Cash and at-first-sight soulmate June Carter to an extent that their acting efforts depress their embryonic romance into near-fairytale responsiveness. Their courting trials are based within the film’s superlative plotline, but the couple’s meant-to-be subtexts restrain complexly designed scenes to stationary experiments in biopic screenwriting. Of all the riskily enfeebling and re-bundled agents to enhance their bona fide ardency, it is the full-scale organization of the film as a neatly segmented narrative (story development, reverberation, musical performance directly related to events currently transpiring, short-term consequences) that leads to small periods of weakness and often jeopardizes the very palpability that the director, writer, and two leads deeply quest for. That is not to say that Phoenix and Witherspoon lack an overall above-decently performed chemistry; their adroitness for bonding in the context of friend-based and group-orientated sections realize the reasons for their being cast in the first place.
A massive tractor enveloped in mud upon the new property of Cash acts as a motif for the popularity that weighs him downwards to the point of soggy suffocation in his own shadow. Ray’s strange attentiveness to the fact that his son owns a tractor but fails to take care of it initiates a scene of gripping uniqueness in which a friend is defined and apathetic acquaintances depart before their livelihood is impinged upon. The scene echoes an instance when late brother Jack informs a twelve year old and eager John that, in a sense, a small white lie or turning-away from loyalty to keep friends can be the most positive choice when you yourself are morally grounded. It is the film’s unquestionable theme and, accompanied by musical numbers fashioned to grip hearts and pump accordingly, outlines the Cash saga with imperative and meaningful premise.
Concluding on an up but incomplete note, Walk the Line bests Ray and earlier forays into Cash’s legacy by a conspicuous margin. A final shot of the entire family gazing at the length of Cash’s personal stream evokes feelings that Cash’s second chance as a husband and father is his reward for not being able to give himself chief credit for his mammoth influence on countless people (as further shown in a short fan letter sequence). His stepchildren stand at the bottom of a staircase leading down to the river, with a tin-can telephone stretched between them and Cash’s father, with Johnny smiling at the scene of his father attempting to talk to these children, as though they are the ones he let too far out in the world before he could make any kind of sentimental impact. The same could be said for Cash’s first family as well; he is more like his father than he could ever fathom, and he apparently left all the father-son conversing to the music.