Red state blues
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - February 3, 2006 - 12:00am
The comparison is inevitable, if unfair: unlike Ray, an epic, sprawling biopic expanding Ray Charles’ life into a decades-long struggle for black civil rights, Walk the Line remains determinedly concentrated on the love story that brought Johnny and June Carter Cash together. On paper, it seems exciting and inspired: focusing on the defining period of one man’s life to capture his entire being. But every one of writer-director James Mangold’s frames are devoid of the spirit and grit that is able to translate Cash’s songs onto the screen, failing to find the appropriate segue that parallels the couple and their art.

The use of the Folsom Prison concert to bookend the film is of predictable faithfulness and obedience to the trite and traditional template of the Hollywood biopic; similarly expected yet nevertheless disappointing is the way Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis glaze over the many rough patches of Johnny Cash’s life with a thickly opaque varnish of frustrating naïveté. What I had not anticipated was in Walk the Line’s stubborn insistence to further tighten its narrative viewfinder as it progressed, I started to not try to care for these characters anymore; bearing witness to the brutal suffocation of pathos and hope was like losing something you realistically would never have gotten anyway.

The lack of passion for both its subjects and the creative exhilaration of telling a story usurps the organic energy of country music that the film seems to advocate, rendering the American South colorless and indistinct; by not illustrating the landscape of the love affair, especially one as supposedly tumultuous as the Cashes’, it is as if Mangold is filming Gone with the Wind without any mention of Tara, or the Civil War for that matter. Only during the performance sequences does the film actually have blood course through its constricted arteries: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon give the performances of their careers as Johnny and June, the only redeeming qualities of depth that drown in the sweet superficiality of a half-baked screenplay. Phoenix more than inhibits the Man in Black with an exquisite technical skill that sticks out among the crude simplicity of the film, but remains thoroughly unlikable due the absence of any emotional investment; it is Witherspoon who really surges with charm and irresistibly luminous charisma that without her onscreen, Walk the Line deflates completely into the unpleasant hollow shell of a layered meditation.

Mangold’s treatment of his source is overtly laborious and dull to the point of making it his intention; the Cash saga is constructed with such blithe imprecision that the nuts and bolts that barely keep the film together are always visible. Walk the Line is so destitute of a concrete identity its actors would even be better off missing their faces. It is too coldly uninvolved to convince as a love story, too clumsily rigid to succeed as a musical, and way too satisfied with the trudging pedestrianism that turns two fascinating lives into an unremarkable mediocrity of cheap yet shiny Grand Ole Opry souvenir-store memorabilia.

Grade: C+
* * *
For comments, e-mail me at lanz_ys@yahoo.com

AMERICAN SOUTH CIVIL WAR FOLSOM PRISON GILL DENNIS GRAND OLE OPRY JAMES MANGOLD JOAQUIN PHOENIX AND REESE WITHERSPOON JOHNNY AND JUNE JOHNNY AND JUNE CARTER CASH WALK THE LINE
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