By repackaging tumultuous true-life tales into tidy three-act narratives, traditional biopics undermine the very authenticity they steadfastly strive for, offering up only-in-the-movies fantasy and structural predictability in place of scraggly, erratic, unruly realism. James Mangold’s Walk the Line is the latest case in point, recasting Johnny Cash’s rise to fame in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a redemptive fairy tale in which the singer, brought up poor and mistreated by his coldhearted pa (Robert Patrick) in rural Arkansas, overcame personal tragedies to find peace, love, and emotional/spiritual liberation with fellow crooner and future wife June Carter. As with Taylor Hackford’s phony Ray—a similar cinematic study of a drug-abusing Southern artist with a unique voice, a taste for women, and psychological wounds stemming from the childhood death of a sibling—Mangold’s film functions as a musical genius-makes-good fable, charting with by-the-numbers precision Cash’s efforts to realize his singer-songwriter dreams, his battles with the pitfalls of success, and his eventual clean-and-sober salvation thanks mostly to the yeoman efforts of his guardian angel. Though Joaquin Phoenix’s solid turn as the country star mercifully forgoes the mannerism-heavy mimicry of Jamie Foxx’s unjustly lauded turn as Ray Charles, Walk the Line missteps by routinely forgoing credible biographical grittiness in favor of glossy Hollywood mythologizing.
Of course, much of Cash’s appeal came from his own self-mythologizing, a process finalized in the ‘90s with the help of producer Rick Rubin via his American Recordings albums with the musician. And thus it’s unsurprising that Mangold’s shadow-laced silhouettes of Cash penning a tune while in the Air Force, or on stage duetting with June (a brunette Reese Witherspoon), strive for larger-than-life iconography. Predominantly set in his pre-Man in Black days, Mangold and Gill Dennis’s script (based on Cash’s autobiographies Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography) uses the singer’s legendary Folsom Prison concert as a framing device for his life story—including his rabble-rousing tours with Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and his infamous drug bust—though the main focus is on his on-the-road romance with Carter, a lifetime performer whose divorcee status marked her as a kindred outsider spirit to the eccentric, rebellious Cash. As Cash was married throughout much of this courtship, Walk the Line offsets its boisterous touring action with scenes of deadening domesticity involving his discontented wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and their neglected daughters. Primarily, however, these hedonism-versus-responsibility dichotomies, when not contributing to the story’s numbing familiarity, merely provide Mangold with opportunities to dutifully detail Cash’s adulterousness, spousal maltreatment, addiction to pills, shirking of familial duties, and callous selfishness.
Phoenix approximates Cash’s inimitably gravely baritone and self-destructive swagger, and his scenes with an outstanding Witherspoon—who beautifully employs her trademark cheeriness to hint at hidden traumas and insecurities—exude a longing and pain that’s otherwise sorely lacking from this stripped-down portrait. Yet boasting uninspired symbolism (a black crow preceding the Folsom show) and a generic mise-en-scène (including predictable music montages to cover less-than-gripping material), Mangold’s biopic fails to capture any sense of how Cash channeled his inner misery into stark, workingman classics like “I Walk The Line” and “Big River.” When brother Jack (Lucas Till) tells a young Cash that “You can’t help nobody if you can’t tell ‘em the right story,” the sentiment—when matched with Cash’s rebel persona—echoes Get Rich or Die Tryin’‘s belief in ugly truth-telling as a means of social good. But rather than making Cash seem like a seminal music outlaw, Mangold’s film shrinks him down to merely another guitar-strummer with paternal problems, in the process largely ignoring the religiosity (and, specifically, the doomsday imagery) that formed a fundamental component of Cash’s dark, brooding songs. Reconfigured into an uplifting romance about love’s transformative power, this vision of Cash’s life detrimentally disregards the looming specter of heaven and hell that hung over the artist’s portentous work. As such, Walk the Line winds up existing somewhere in the mediocre purgatorial middle.