Walk the Line is leveling. Not because of retina-stimulating camera work or fast-paced editing, but because of the story and the performances of the actors. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon bring to life the frequently remarkable tale of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Like last year's Ray, Walk the Line takes a story that you thought you knew, and reveals that the whole story, with all the details, is better than the legend.
The story of Johnny Cash is hard to resist. He is a cultural touchstone. We have few of these icons in our world. Johnny Carson may have been one, but whereas Carson got us with his nightly presence and stinging wit, Cash gets us with his life story. He entered our consciousness with his bass croon and left as the ragged old man seen in the video for "Hurt." Over the years, Cash beat addiction, came back with one of the most resonating albums of all time (Live at Folsom Prison), and then, in his golden years, when his public presence was dimming, returned with a series of albums produced by Rick Rubin, which seduced us with songs that were perfect presentations of an imperfect man.
Barring his first few hits, little else may have happened had it not been for Carter. It was her profound devotion to a hard-to-love man that helped save Cash from his demons and make him a Rosetta Stone for generations to come. It is in their love affair that Walk the Line finds its heart. At first we only see Carter as Cash sees her, but as the story progresses, Carter lays down her modest autoharp to co-write one of the greatest songs in the music lexicon: "Ring of Fire." The song is a testimony to the love she felt for Cash, and it is during her writing of the song that we see the choices with which she wrestled. It is the stuff that stirs the hearts of even the most cynical. Walk the Line is not some white lie slipped to us by Hollywood (e.g., The Notebook); it is Cash and Carter's biography.
The performances in Walk the Line are so profoundly good, you believe it when Phoenix swaggers up to the mic and bellows, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." His performance is mesmerizing. Phoenix nails the duplicity of the Man in Black. Witherspoon matches his performanceher acting is a study in deliberate pacing and understatement. Supporting roles lend further credence to the story. Most notable is Dallas Roberts as Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In his few minutes, he delivers one of the most engaging bits of dialogue in the movie.
There is more: The soundtrack, the singing of Phoenix and Witherspoon ... the song choices are varied and seminal; and both Phoenix and Witherspoon, who sing throughout the movie, are fantastic.
The movie ends with Cash's proposal to Carter at a concert in Canada in the late '60s. I could have stayed for many more hours to see the rest of their lives together; Phoenix and Witherspoon's performances were that engaging. And the story? It was one that takes off the kid gloves to reveal the life of a flawed man made greater than the sum of his parts by the influential love of an incredible woman.