A grey, leaden sky. A black crow. Cigarette butts. A prison yard. A sharp, shining saw blade. These images lead the viewer through the introductory montage to James Mangold’s new biopic on Johnny Cash, and they serve the film well. Mangold, who does a solid job of condensing the finest points in the Man in Black’s life into a little over two hours, pulls the viewer in with stark, realistic shots that echo death and redemption. Mangold then allows the deep, heavy country twang that is being pulled out of a Fender Telecaster to remind us that some damned fine music lies at the heart of the story that is Johnny Cash.
“Walk the Line” succeeds when Mangold allows the power, beauty and simple grace of Cash’s story to both show and tell itself. Take the scene in which Cash and his younger brother are walking through an unending stretch of cotton fields. Fishing poles in hand, the boys play a game in which they alternate between running and stopping in full stride, their feet sliding on the dirt and gravel. The two smile and laugh, toying with each other. Mangold does not overshoot the scene and the edits are seamless. The color on the screen is rich and full. And the entirety and uncertainty of Cash’s future, which will soon implode and reverse itself, is wholly felt.
Then, match that scene up with one that transpires only minutes later into the film. Cash, now older and attempting to seize his future in Nashville, eyes the recording studio that will soon make him famous. In less than 30 seconds, Mangold has Cash spot two boys his age (one of whom is carrying a guitar), a young black kid shining a white man’s shoes, and Sam Phillips, the recording engineer and studio maverick who gave Cash his shot at fame. This time around, Mangold uses quick, hurried cuts and slight focus blurs to capture the hurried sense of time that everything must have represented to Cash at that period. His music and his ideas are developing. And life around him is being changed as a result.
Yet the credit does not belong solely to Mangold. “Walk the Line” would have failed had Joaquin Phoenix failed; but he did not. It is both beautiful and unquestionably eerie as to just how close-to-perfect Phoenix is able to resurrect the ghost of Cash in his eyes, in his movements, in has passion and in his voice. When Cash is up and riding high, meeting June Carter for the first time and trading tales with Jerry Lee Lewis and the King, Phoenix plays the part with a remarkable coolness. His eyes are beady and wide-open and his talk is low and sweet. Later in the film though, when Cash is down and out, popping pills by the handful and cheating death, Phoenix plays the part with an unnervingly realistic passion. He should have this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor already sitting on a shelf in his house, collecting dust.
“Walk the Line,” at its simplest, is a love story. At its most profound, it is a story of redemption. Mangold and Phoenix hold the picture aloft, between the two shores, producing a vibrant film that only makes the life and the music of Johnny Cash that much more essential and unique.