I hear the train a comin´
It´s rolling round the bend
And I ain´t seen the sunshine since I don´t know when
--Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"
This 2005 biopic follows Johnny Cash to the early 70s; it lets us see the icon develop, but not thrive. The Man in Black would maintain career and credibility through country’s shallow, uncool Me Decade, and continue to record folk and gospel until his death. He always remained in touch with the broader world of popular music; at 77 he recorded a powerful cover of Trent Reznor’s "Hurt." Joaquin Phoenix gives a stunning performance as the early Cash, the powerfully-striding, weathered-voiced, troubled man who will go on to do these things.
Reese Witherspoon also fairly disappears into the role, playing both the strong-willed, sassy June Carter and her dippy country gal stage persona. Her performance won the 2005 Oscar for best actress. All actors in the film do their own singing, and they perform admirably.
Walk the Line features three narrative pillars: the concert At Folsom Prison, the death of Cash's brother and John's subsequent drug problems, and his courtship of June Carter. Cash pursued her through two of her marriages and one of his own. Cash's various demons the film largely represents through his grief over the beloved and favored brother. Jack Cash's accidental death is arguably the darkest moment in a childhood marked by poverty and hardships. The film condenses time, creating the impression that Jack died the day of his accident with a table saw; in reality, the complications killed him several days later. Cash becomes involved with drugs, driven partially by his grief, but also (according to this film) pop star peer pressure. He needs to stay alert while touring, and someone assures him that Elvis takes the pills, too.
The film examines reality and legend. Many believed that Cash had served hard time. In fact, he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" after watching a film about the penitentiary while in the army. The movie shows this reality, but suggests the genuine pain and personal isolation that allowed him to write convincingly from a prisoner’s perspective. Of course, the film doubtless adds to the legend, as well.
"I started taking the pills and soon the pills started taking me."
The depiction of Cash's withdrawal experiences proves disturbing, but Phoenix's staged pain and the director's disorienting distortions contrast with a moment of edgy country humor. Members of the Carter family help Cash make it through these dark times, and at one point Mother Maybelle and Ezra chase Cash's drug dealer off the property, shotguns in hand. I don’t know if this happened as depicted onscreen, but I rather hope it did.
The film captures the casual nature of a pop music industry long gone, replaced by one bloated with hyperbolic excesses and self-importance. The world depicted here is one where even diehard fans understand the place of pop. We see Cash wander into Sam Phillips’ and receive an audition. Bona fide stars on tour interact with regular folk in small towns. A churchy woman chastises June for getting divorced and later frowns in the crowd as she flirts with Johnny onstage. Cash tours with Carter, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all aware of their emerging iconic status, but hauling their own gear from town to town, sleeping in modest hotels and drinking during rehearsal.
The movie’s subtitles dutifully identify the various locales; one exception to this rule has caused a minor stir in Canada. Cash’s famous onstage proposal to June Carter takes place at an opulent theater in a generic "Ontario, Canada" town. The actual concert occurred at a hockey arena in London, Ontario. Speculation holds that the producers felt the city’s name would confuse American viewers. Locals have requested the subtitle be corrected.
He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned.
He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
--Kris Kristofferson, "Pilgrim"
Cash may not be the perfect biopic, but it's powerful, well-crafted, and marked by strong performances. Even those with minimal interest in Cash's music should find the film worthwhile.
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold
Based in part on writings by John Cash.
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon as June Carter
Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Cash
Robert Patrick as Ray Cash
Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips
Dan John Miller as Luther Perkins
Larry Bagby as Marshall Grant
Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley
Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis
Shooter Jennings as Waylon Jennings
Sandra Ellis Lafferty as Mother Maybelle Carter
Dan Beene as Ezra Carter
Ridge Canipe as Young Johnny
Lucas Till as Jack Cash