Let’s start with Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Johnny Cash. Joaquin began his career by sucking in a variety of roles, but today I come to praise Phoenix, not to bury him (I suppose I could have said that Phoenix rises from the ashes of his own career, but that seemed a little too obvious, even for me). He does a heck of a job acting and singing in this movie, and come a glamorous night in March, he just might find himself hoisting a little golden statue for his trouble. Now let me be clear on this – I’m not saying he necessarily gave the best performance by a male actor in a leading role this year, but this is exactly the sort of role they like to give Oscars for. And Mr. Phoenix has come a long way for this shot at the title, so I say good for him.
Let’s move on to Reese Witherspoon, who plays the female lead of June Carter. Reese is more of a known quantity coming in, so it comes as no surprise that she pulls it off, though there is also the pleasant surprise that she too does her own singing and does it very well. She stands a good chance of pulling down a nomination and maybe even an Oscar herself for this performance. While I cannot in good conscience present her as a great actress, there are several talents that she possesses in abundance. First and foremost, she knows how to be a movie star. Her eyelash batting and winsome smiles are becoming a little too familiar; they're kind of mechanical at times and they serve as a frequent reminder to us that she is acting. But though her arsenal of acting moves appears to be rather limited, it must be said that she is completely in command of these tools. Plus which, she’s just so darn cute and has such a likable on-screen persona that as an audience member, I find myself really wanting to look past her limitations. I don't want to sound like I'm being too hard on her. There's no one else coming to mind whom I'd rather have seen in the role, and I think that's one of the best things you can say about a performance.
There are two primary conflicts presented in the film, in addition to the basic career arc that is played out before us. One is Cash’s battles with his own inner demons, particularly his pill-popping, which lead him down a miserable self-destructive path for much of the film. While one could argue that his relationship with his first wife is also a primary conflict, I am inclined to include that under the “inner demons” umbrella. I would hazard a guess that a lot of footage involving the first Mrs. Cash got dumped in the editing room, and if that’s the case, I think it was the right choice. The other primary conflict, which ties heavily into the first one, is his relationship with June Carter. Of course, most of us have at least a general idea of how this is all going to play out, but that sort of audience knowledge is a factor in many a biopic. The challenge for the filmmaker is in how to make such a story absorbing and entertaining in spite of its predictability, and director James Mangold does a really fine job with that. I suppose it’s hard to think of this type of film as a directorial vehicle, given its formulaic nature and lack of whiz-bang technical effects, but for my money, Mangold deserves at least as much credit as Phoenix and Witherspoon for making this such a fine movie-going experience. I would be quite happy to see Oscar nod in his general direction as well. And let me toss out one more bouquet – to musical producer T-Bone Burnett. He brings the same exquisite musical taste and knowledge to this film that he did to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? I haven’t looked at the Billboard charts lately, but I would expect that the sound track of Walk the Line is probably a very big seller.
So the bottom line is this – Walk the Line is high quality Hollywood entertainment, top to bottom. If you’re choosing between mainstream films, I don’t think you’ll do much better than this anytime soon.