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Fine Line
Joaquin Phoenix cashes in
Related Links

Walk the Line's official Web site

Johnny Cash's official Web site

Ted Drozdowski remembers Johnny Cash.

Ted Drozdowski reviews June Carter Cash's Wildwood Flower

Ted Drozdowski on why Johnny Cash is more, and less, than you’ve been told.

Ted Drozdowski reviews Johnny Cash: The Legend comprises andJune Carter Cash — Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music.

Camille Dodero writes about defending Johnny Cash's honor at the 2004 Republican National Committee.

Johnny Cash walked the line from The Heavenly Highway Hymn Book, which his mother gave him as a child to learn to sing, to "Hurt," the cover of the Trent Reznor paean to heroin that in 2003 won him a posthumous Grammy for Best Video. Now he’s an icon, his music probably programmed on the president’s iPod, a blurb from Billy Graham on his autobiography. The tortured and demonic part of him that stoked his genius gets lost in the platitudes, the rough edges airbrushed by sentimentality.

Not in James Mangold’s movie. Sometimes all it takes to get a life right is a well-executed framing device and flashback. (For how not to do this, see Ray.) Walk the Line opens with hundreds of Folsom Prison inmates pounding their feet along with Cash’s band. The singer (Joaquin Phoenix) takes a break in the woodshop, pondering a buzz saw. Time backs up 24 years to 1944, when 11-year-old Cash’s saintly older brother Jack is accidentally laid open by the same kind of blade. Cash’s guilt at this death permeates all that follows, driving him to hell and redemption.

Embodying such a story, not to mention imitating one of the most familiar voices in pop music, inspires actors to Oscar turns, for better or worse. At first Phoenix doesn’t sound or look much like Cash; he resembles the depraved Emperor Commodus, whom he portrayed in Gladiator. This is not a bad thing. His Cash may seem slow and gentle, his voice deep and tender, but it resonates with menace, and he’s got crazy eyes. At his Sun Records audition, when Sam Phillips tells him to drop the gospel and sing what he believes in, it’s no surprise when Cash picks a tune he wrote about killing a man just to watch him die.

This outlaw soul gets a workout in the next few years. Cash tours the country with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and fuels the fire with booze and pills. But formidable figures check his anarchy. His wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) gives him four daughters and endless grief. His father (Robert Patrick) delights in putting him down. The wife departs, but dad is inescapable, returning to every holiday dinner like Banquo’s ghost to remind him that all he’s done is "nothin.’ "

Mostly, though, what makes him walk the line is his "angel," June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). As a boy, Cash listened to her perky child act on the radio; later she would tour with him and be an unwilling wet blanket to his adolescent self-destructiveness and a rejecter of his desperate marriage proposals. Witherspoon captures Carter’s frantic ebullience as a mini Minnie Pearl unsure of her talent and anxious about being a single mom in a shaky profession stalked by a besotted beneficiary.

Mostly, though she’s there to shrink in terror and pity as Cash melts down in Vegas while spitting out "I Got Stripes" until the rage and speed seize up and he drops to the floor like a felled ox. Phoenix’s performance transcends mimicry. He transforms himself, as did Cash, from a whimpering chaos of need, grief, and talent into the black-clad subterranean voice that tames the savage breasts of Folsom prison and wins the heart of the woman he loves.

Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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