In Hollywood, as in life, timing is a crucial factor in the relative success or failure of any undertaking. That said, Walk The Line, a Johnny Cash biopic, suffers greatly for jumping into the pool a short year after Taylor Hackford's marvelous Ray Charles biopic. Of course every work of art deserves ideally to be judged on its own merit, but we live in a cynical world and judgment is passed as much on comparison to the other as on individual worth. While James Mangold's movie is a very good and involving one about a poor boy from the south, haunted by a brother's death, coming to the big city, getting married to a nice girl, then becoming a famous musician, falling into drugs, cheating on his wife on the road, and eventually cleaning up and becoming an American legend, Ray is a better movie that matches up element for element (think about it). In fact, one can arguably suggest that Ray is innately the more compelling of the two because Mr. Charles began in greater poverty, beat stiffer odds, overcame more daunting obstacles, conquered a more sever drug addiction, and, to boot, his music is simply more brilliant. Sadly, Walk The line becomes minuscule in Ray's shadow.
What Walk the Line does have going for it undoubtedly is strong performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Cash (though his cleft lip surgery unfortunately gives him away) and Reese Witherspoon (playing June Carter, proving there is much promise after Legally Blonde). Then there is the music. Line does not disappoint in supplying a wonderful array and nicely staged toe-tapping – however similar sounding – Johnny Cash tunes. Between the music and the performances, Walk the Line defines itself enough to deserve our attention. Certain anecdotes portrayed are priceless, like the early tours where the impossibly young crew of Cash, Elvis, Carter, and Jerry Lee Lewis drove their own cars through the night to play small gigs across the country and caroused at all points in between.
Its hard to pick on a film that tries so genuinely to honor an icon (by occasionally defaming him), but certain aspects of the film simply don't flow. Walk The Line occasionally succumbs to Biopicitis, where the filmmakers attempt to depict all the highlights from a life lived (in this case using Cash's autobiography) at the expense of a competent narrative. The worst, most stunning offender is where at one point we see Cash so broke and degenerate he cant' pay bills or retrieve his impounded car. After collapsing in a drunken stupor in the middle of the woods he wakes up to see houses being built by a lake. In the next scene he inexplicably has purchased the house and moves in – and this signifies the turning point in the movie for Cash. Another misstep is the continuous rehashing of his Daddy issues. While it's nice to see Robert Patrick (as Cash senior) get some meaningful work, there is no need to subject the audience to such didactics however deeply they may have affected the real Cash.
Luckily, at the heart of this movie is the tender, ever rocky relationship between soul-mates Johnny Cash and June Carter. Phoenix and Witherspoon use their eyes and voices to convince us that we are watching timeless love blossom with every song, every teary argument, every chilling confession. When June agrees to marry Johnny on stage after years of struggling, the fire they conjure is so radiant it could light the eyes of a blind man.