Joachin Phoenix achieves a tour de force with his powerful portrayal of a young Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line."
While Phoenix's singing has been widely and deservedly praised, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter also holds up her half of the duets, and her buoyant performance helps save the film from wallowing in the lead role's personal troubles.
Mangold shows us the boy called J.R., suffering a drought of paternal affection in the shade-deprived cotton fields, but who learns from his mother how to tap into a spiritual strength by singing. We are brought into the boy’s dark night, where we sense his self-doubt which, fed by guilt, will later sap the spirit of the young singer and lead to the addiction that threatens to destroy him as he strives for success.
When Phoenix finally appears on stage as the veritable embodiment of the successful Man in Black, and leans into the microphone to give us that "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" in perfect Deep South baritone, there is no doubt – so flawless have been the cinematic exposition and the acting by Phoenix.
With superb attention to detail, the film captures a lost era in the life of our nation, just as it repeatedly shows Johnny Cash attempting to regain an idealized childhood. The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael II frames forlorn scenery with the reverence a true believer has for all God’s creation.
To illustrate the toll Cash's career takes on his first marriage, Mangold shows the couple arguing in a room filled with fan mail. At one of his concerts, Cash's family sits conspicuously in the audience, segregated from his onstage inner circle. Who could better share Cash's love than June Carter, his tour mate, the disembodied voice he idealized as a boy and the one woman who remains his true friend.
Cash spirals into the depths of drug addiction, and inevitably is arrested, but the scene of the singer alone in a jail cell is brief and does not serve as the image of a moment of truth. Indeed, Cash avoids confronting his demons. Released from custody he heads home instead to hang his head in self-pity at poolside.
Consistently the film shows how Cash is intimately affected by personal struggles and triumphs, whereas the man’s great commercial success and many number one songs are mostly referred to obliquely in montage. Finally, June Carter saves the literally drowning singer. She dries him off, then dries him out.
The happy ending works in this film, since Cash's reconciliation with his father has been prepared. After a lifetime of miscommunication, misdirected anger and guilt between father and son, it is the brutal honesty of the senior Cash that forces the crisis which brings about the singer's redemption. Johnny Cash goes from being a talent mired in addiction to the man who recaptures his artistic potential, symbolized by the live concert at Folsom Prison. Whereas the song “Folsom Prison Blues” was an early product of Cash’s chafing against authority, the actual live performance showcases a mature artist who celebrates in song the human condition and in so doing redeems himself.
The final credits roll to the voices of the real Johnny Cash and June Carter singing one of their signature duets. It makes you realize those two American icons were inimitable. But at the same time you are overwhelmed at how consummately that duo has been brought back to life by the acting and singing of Phoenix and Witherspoon.