By Mark Guarino
In May 1997 I reviewed for this newspaper Johnny Cash’s last concert in Chicago. That same year he would be diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome and die six years later. But that night at the House of Blues, Cash performed songs from his 40-plus year career — the Sun Records rockers “Get Rhythm” and “Cry, Cry, Cry,” spirituals from his youth up to covers written by unlikely collaborators like Beck, Tom Petty and Soundgarden.
But it was the songs he sang with wife June Carter at the show’s end that I’ll remember the most. She cat danced with her husband, they held hands and kissed. As they sang corny fare like “If I Were A Carpenter,” faces were made at the other, in a dare to make the other crack up before the end.
That unique friendship is the heart of “Walk the Line,” the new film that’s here two years after both their deaths. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon portray the couple that flirted, fished, fought and fell in love on the road. “Ring of Fire,” Carter’s song she co-wrote about their relationship, describes their attraction as “bound by wild desire.” No less are Phoenix and Witherspoon. Their dynamic chemistry is endearing right through. Watching these two peel away the layers, from discovery to frustration to domestic salvation, is riveting viewing.
The blueprint is “Ray,” the Ray Charles bio that made the unusual choice to concentrate on the part of the singer’s life that makes him look the worst. In this case, Cash suffers the death of his brother, a stint in the military and a loveless marriage only to end up gobbling pills and hounded by feelings of inadequacy, stoked by his sharecropper dad (Robert Patrick). Can you blame him? After Cash’s brother is killed, Patrick tells his remaining son, “the devil did this — he took the wrong son.”
This psychological parlor trick is a convenient ticket to explain away Cash’s hellbent ‘60s period, where he was busted for drugs and lost his family. Phoenix is note perfect in popping his top — sinks get ripped out, guitars smashed — but director James Mangold is stymied why. Cash was a complicated man and a struggling Christian, yet his faith is erased from this film’s fury. Playing saint and sinner for entertainment was Cash’s heaviest burden, yet here, that chaotic struggle is largely absent. In its place is a too-familiar conflict, where daddy’s the devil and a woman will wash away his sin. Rich with biblical imagery, Cash’s music had a darker and more restless spirit that this film is too timid to touch.
What about that music? Mangold’s smartest move is filling it up top to bottom with dynamite performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon, who do their own singing. In their early days, those awkward performances are just right — Witherspoon’s a life size Betty Boop and Phoenix is all brooding machismo. As they move deeper into sexual tension, their duets sizzle. But no scene gets to the heart of this couple more than when they go fishing together in an unspoken moment of true onscreen intimacy.
The story starts and ends at Folsom Prison, site of Cash’s famous 1968 album. The rousing scene captures Cash’s prime appeal as a blue collar messiah. Thirty-five years would continue the story, but in this ending, their love burns, burns, burns.