The love story between Johnny Cash and June Carter could not have been written any better if it were fiction. Theirs is not a straightforward boy-meets-girl, boy-saves-girl story; instead, their love is full of bumpy roads and detours. And that makes the two’s eventual coupling all the more classic.
Joaquin Phoenix (who plays Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (who plays Carter) provide accurate and believable performances. But this simple one-plus-one equation (good story and good acting), unfortunately, does not add up. “Walk the Line” is not a terrible film. But that is mainly due to the power of the Cash-Carter story.
Director James Mangold’s glossy Hollywood film techniques and obvious foreshadowing make the Man in Black more like the Man in Gray.
The major problem with “Walk the Line” is that the film cannot decide what angle is most important. Two different commercials play on television to advertise “Walk the Line”: The first highlights the love story of the film; the other focuses on Cash himself ” his menacing glare and songs of prison and sin.
Both aspects of “Walk the Line” are skimmed over and we never fully plunge into the grittiness. The film adds small biographical details such as Cash listening to country group the Carter Family (which June eventually joined). But, without understanding the importance of the Carter Family in country music, this detail isn’t emphasized enough to hold much significance.
“Walk the Line” does credit June Carter, feature her as a fiery performer and acknowledge that she wrote one of Cash’s biggest hits, “Ring of Fire.” Nonetheless, Carter’s significance still is confined to the role of Cash’s muse and savior. Carter’s purpose is more to rescue Cash from his drug addiction than to be a credible musician.
Near the end of the film, Carter’s mother, Maybelle, makes an appearance; but again, unless you already know the Carter Family, this detail is sadly lost.
The Carter Family detail is a significant one, too; Cash was hugely influenced by the group, which established his intrigue for June. When Cash and Carter meet for the first time, the film relies on Phoenix and Reese’s chemistry to portray the instant attraction. But probably much of that attraction had to do with Cash’s love for Carter’s music and her family. While the film touches briefly on this, it certainly is not stressed.
In the end, the story ” though processed and simplified through Hollywood ” is still a good one. The Cash and Carter romance along with Cash’s rise and fall are a strong enough plot to satisfy his fans.