In great movies, emotion isn't unilaterally expressed by a virtuosic performance. No matter how deeply an actor taps into his or her role, the ability to evoke a distinct emotional tone is dependent on the shading of cinematographic devices. Effective use of lighting, perspective and film stock can radically shape the disposition of a scene.
In the case of Johnny Cash, his gritty style of music reaches down to the depths of the human soul and connects with the most deeply founded repressions. Therefore, from an artistic standpoint, it would make sense to cinematically depict his life with black and white film utilizing high-contrast lighting to coax the appropriate gritty textures. However, from a commercial standpoint, giving Cash the old Hollywood gloss will draw the audience to the theaters in droves, especially considering the recent success of "Ray." Unfortunately, the myth — nay, the legend — of Johnny Cash suffers from this treatment, but "Walk the Line" still remains an enjoyable, well-acted, Oscar-grubbing movie.
Instead of playing to the mystique of his character, "Walk the Line" represents Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, "Ladder 49") as a man of linear design. The movie often suggests simple, direct causes for the creation of his songs. Cash watches a film on Folsom Prison in the Air Force or sees a young shoeshine boy on a city street and crafts these experiences into lyrics. By the end of the film, all the potential to shape a dynamic characterization has been subordinated to his relentless desire for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, "Legally Blonde") and unresolved family tension. Cash is reduced to weakness so consistently that it seems the most salient aspect of his character.
"Walk the Line" essentially concerns the love story of Cash and Carter. Cash's relentless advances largely define their relationship, as June's feelings remain hesitant and ambivalent. Cash's ability to function seems to depend on the current dynamic of their relationship. One of the few scenes of shared tenderness in which Cash teases Carter with "Peanuts" shows great chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon and is a giddy delight. However, such scenes are few and far between. The movie spends so much time on the relationship that other intriguing aspects of Cash's life fall to the wayside. In this respect, the movie doesn't spend nearly enough time on the development and realization of Cash's music both from a personal and cultural perspective.
"Walk the Line" is chock-full of musical performances for which the actors actually learned their respective instruments and honed in on the appropriate drawls. These performances are where the movie comes together to rouse excitement in the audience, who feels it is truly witnessing Cash's spirit. Phoenix and Witherspoon both successfully capture the nuances in their posturing and inflections. In a couple key scenes, the movie boosts the impact of the performances through cinematic contextualization. In fact, "Walk the Line" opens with the introduction to Cash's performance at Folsom Prison. Johnny sits at a steel table with a saw blade protruding through it, and the rhythmic pounding of prisoners is echoed in a cup of rippling water. In another scene, Johnny nervously waits with his band behind a curtain, which suddenly rises to reveal a sea of audience members hungry for entertainment, inciting Cash to rip into a tasty riff like an explosion of fireworks. Whether letting us stew in tension or exciting audience members, the portrayals of these performances exemplify the movie's greatest potential to arouse.
Generally, the acting is superb. Phoenix and Witherspoon grasp their characters' peculiarities of speech enough to be natural and convincing. Phoenix appears especially possessed in his casual flaunts of low-growled charm. "Walk the Line" also pays close attention to the style and décor of the '50s and '60s. It is possible to track the time period by the fluctuations in June's hairstyle or Johnny's clothes.
The verdict of this film review is that, with all artistic squabbles aside, "Walk the Line" succeeds as an entertaining movie with rich production values and venerable acting, though those with an investment in the deep cryptic nature of Cash's personality should be cautious in the face of narrative simplicity. It may also be useful to reiterate that those who enjoyed "Ray" will probably get a kick out of "Walk the Line." The latest biopic to hit theatres may not be the closest descriptor of this music legend's life, but its heart and soul — and consequently the heart and soul of Cash himself — shine through with ease.