Sunday, December 04, 2005

Walk the Line

James Mangold opens his sensational biopic about the life of Johnny Cash amidst the stirring atmosphere of Cash's groundbreaking At Folsom Prison album. Prison guards keep watch as inmated stomp their feet, clap their hands and wait in anticipation for the return from "backstage" of their working-class, rough-talking hero. In the wood shop, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, in a career performance) rubs his fingers across a table saw as his wife, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon, ditto) waits in the background.

Mangold then takes us back to the beginning, to tell the story of how a sensitive young boy who listened to gospel from his momma and on the radio became one of the early-adopters of rockabilly, the voice of a time period, and an inspiration for generations to come.

Walk the Line follows Cash's career from his beginnings with Sun Records (the Cash sound is born out of necessity in an inpromptu audition for Sam Phillips) through his marriage to June Carter after a decade of pursuing her, with a failed marriage and kids on the side.

Like last year's Ray, Walk the Line delves into more than just the man's public persona. Dirt and all, we see Cash's spiral into drug addiction, his abandonment of his first wife (though it's quite obvious he's in love with June from the moment he sees her), his ascension to prima donna, his cathartic relationship with his father, a tough man who blames him for the death of his brother at a very young age.

Phoenix and Witherspoon are positively piercing as the central couple, their chemistry undeniable, their bond powerful and unique. Mangold plays to this strength and his film is all the more affecting for it.

Performances aside, Walk the Line is a powerful piece of work, a modern-day Rebel Without a Cause. Though it appears as a typical awards-baiting picture, Walk the Line manages to transcend its "pedigree" and emerge as a potent bit of filmmaking, the kind of classic Hollywood picture that isn't made enough these days.

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