Movie Review – Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon Make “Walk the Line” Better Than the Film

Walk the Line – 2 Stars (Average)

“Walk the Line” is the story of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon). Born poor in Arkansas, Cash rises to fame in the country music world and destroys a lot of relationships along the way with drinking, drugs and pandering. Eventually, June Carter wins his heart.

Cash became who he was because the songs he wrote and sang were from his heart about his own life; they were not phony, and music lovers related to them in their own world.

Walk the Line was a struggle to produce as it took 4 years to secure the rights to the film and another 4 years to get the film made. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did their own singing, both of them had 6 months of vocal training and also learned to play their instruments (guitar and auto-harp) from scratch.

Both Phoenix and Witherspoon showcase their talents in this film that had a great story line but not a great presentation. Based in part on Cash’s own book Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, the adaptation also is credited to Gill Dennis and James Mangold, who also directed the film. It is seldom a good idea for a director to also be a writer in the same film, and Mangold showed why.

Rather than be a good finder, it seemed that Mangold was determined to send his portrayal of Johnny Cash buck naked into the woods and drag Cash through the muck and mire far too long. It was unnecessary and added nothing to the film in my judgment. Mangold simply did not tell a good story well, he told a story.

Whatever sins Cash committed on his way to becoming a legend and country music icon could have been handled without trying to raise it to an art form. Let the writers and director who are without any sins cast the first stone. It seemed as if they wanted to drag Cash down in order to build themselves up.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon saved this film. Witherspoon won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. Walk the Line won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, but not on my ballot. Walk the Line won additional Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design, Editing and Sound Mixing. Besides Witherspoon’s Oscar, the film had another 27 wins as well as 26 more nominations.

Walk the Line, released in 2005, has a special place in history as Johnny Cash recorded with Sun Records in Memphis, along with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins among others.

It was reported that Johnny Cash chose Joaquin Phoenix to play him in the film on the basis or his performance in “Gladiator”, and that June Carter Cash chose Reese Witherspoon for her role in the film. June Carter Cash died in May 2003 before production began on the film, and Johnny Cash died 4 months later in September 2003.

Cash was blessed with a deep, distinctive voice and known as “The Man in Black”. He wrote more than 1,000 songs and sold more than 90 million albums in a career that lasted nearly 5 decades. A diverse group of artists have paid tribune to Cash, among them Bob Dylan, Chris Isaak, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and U2.

Johnny Cash has a number of signature songs that will not be going away anytime soon, including “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring of Fire”, “Man in Black” and “A Boy Named Sue”.

Walk the Line is worth seeing just for Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. I would not watch it again, and was not a better person for having seen it, thus it gets my average rating which would have been higher with better writing and better direction.

Copyright © 2008 Ed Bagley

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