“The movie starts off with disjointed storytelling […] but the second half brings it home with amazing performances and a very endearing story.”
Despite me being a fan of Johnny Cash I never got around to watching Walk the Line, a movie that chronicles the trajectory of his life from small-town boy to worldwide star. Well, I have watched Walk Hard which is almost a shot-for-shot parody at points, but I never understood that until yesterday when I finally watched Walk the Line.
The beginning of Walk the Line is what I would call rough. It’s a big task to take someone’s entire life and condense it down into 150 minutes so I was understanding, but it was still pretty rough. The beginning of Walk the Line exhibits many problems that are found with movies that span long periods of time, and that is how they convey time-jumps. Walk the Line takes an interesting approach by jumping seemingly wherever it wanted to, and leaving me wondering what the hell is going on. I would say that the beginning of Walk the Line is more akin to a series of flashbacks than it is a coherent story. Sure there is some good stuff here with the death of Johnny Cash’s brother and the drama surrounding it, but overall this portion of the movie is kind of a wash. I mean apart from the periodic “Oh shit! That’s (insert name of famous musician here)! That’s crazy”, there isn’t much going on in this section. This makes sense later when I found out a very key piece of information: Walk the Line is not a movie about Johnny Cash; it is a movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter. The beginning of the movie feels a little disjointed because it is essentially giving you the Cliffs Notes up until Johnny and June finally meet; and from there on out it is more of a love story than a story about Johnny Cash himself.
Luckily, halfway through, the movie picks up by going to a really dark part of Johnny Cash’s life: addiction. The beginning of Walk the Line, as I’ve said, is pretty much a wash. Even things like performances are not that great because this is the “happy” part of the story. Everyone is bopping along doing their own thing, and it’s a story that we’ve seen a thousand times before. Luckily around the halfway mark everything picks up. With the inclusion of Johnny Cash’s addiction to pills, we get a very interesting and heartbreaking story. We get to see the influence that this addiction had on Johnny Cash’s life, and we get to see how addiction in general can ruin people. We see how his relationships with those around him are strained, and we see how he reacts to realizing this but feeling powerless to stop it. This part of the movie is really where Joaquin Phoenix disappears, and Johnny Cash makes his appearance. Not only does the story become the focus of the movie, but the performances come out of hiding and make themselves known. It is here that we get to see Joaquin Phoenix take on the demons that Johnny Cash had to struggle with his whole life, and the way he does makes you think that you’re watching the real thing unfold. This is also where June Carter starts to play a larger role, eventually helping Johnny Cash with his addiction. This means that, much like Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon also got her chance to shine (although I will admit that she had other chances earlier on as well).
Performance-wise, this movie really stands on the shoulders of the two stars. I already praised Joaquin Phoenix, but he deserves another round of applause. The way that he played Johnny Cash’s subtle, yet very dark change throughout his life was absolutely astounding. Like I already mentioned, it was like watching the real thing. And what really blew me away were the vocal performances he gave throughout the film. Nothing bugs me more than when a character in a movie opens their mouth to sing, and what comes out is obviously not their voice; luckily this wasn’t even close to the case in Walk the Line. Not only did the singing look better because it was actually the actors doing it, but Joaquin actually sounded pretty close to Johnny Cash. Sure there were some minor differences here and there, but overall it was a stellar performance especially considering that Cash has such an iconic voice to begin with. Right up there with Phoenix you have Reese Witherspoon who might have delivered my favourite performance of hers as June Carter. Not only do you get the repressed demons that poke their way through every once in a while, but you get a great sense of uncertainty with her deciding whether or not she wants to pursue a relationship with Johnny Cash. Her performance as a whole is great, but it is really punctuated by a few scenes that really show her acting ability. June Carter has an image that is very put-together, but every once in a while when that image breaks we get to see the real brilliance of this performance shine through. And once again, the singing the Reese Witherspoon does in the film is absolutely astounding. I actually didn’t believe it was her at first because her voice was so “old country” that I thought they just brought in a legit country-western singer. Turns out it is her and once again it elevates the performance just that much more. As for other performances in the movie, none really come to mind. It’s not that they were bad or anything, it’s just that the two main performances were so good that they kind of overshadowed everyone else. I will say that the direction in the film, especially the scenes that take place on stage, was amazing. The shots were both inventive and immersive and I hope this director goes on to do great things.
Overall Walk the Line is a very good movie, but really only in its second half. The movie starts off with disjointed storytelling and seemingly gets by on celebrity character cameos and the wonderful soundtrack, but the second half brings it home with amazing performances and a very endearing story. I will say that I was disappointed that because of the focus of the movie (Johnny and June’s relationship) a lot of Johnny’s life kind of fell by the wayside, but overall it was very emotional and enjoyable.
I give Walk the Line a B