Saturday, September 24, 2005

TIFF 2005: "WALK THE LINE" (Review)

(Gala Presentation) USA, 136 minutes
Written by: Gill Dennis, James Mangold, based on "Man in Black" and "Cash: The Autobiography" by Johnny Cash
Directed by: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Waylon Malloy Payne, Tyler Hilton,
Shooter Jennings

As stoic as its subject--but never as profoundly resonant--"Walk The Line" has clearly been engineered as this year's "Ray" in an effort to woo boxed-set-collecting Oscar voters and appease aging boomers who think that a 24 hour biography channel just isn't enough. That being said, this patchy rumble through the early career of pioneering iconoclast Johnny Cash is arguably (depending on one's taste in music and melodrama) a superior film to Hackford's, even if it does shamelessly steal--sorry, it's "sample" these days--every note in the Biopic 101 songbook.

Once again, it all begins in an impoverished shacktown in the American South--this time 40s Arkansas. There's the defeatist, abusive father (Patrick). The brother whose life is claimed early in a tragic accident that Our Subject blames himself for (as well as dear old drunken Ray Cash, who maintains "The Devil... took the wrong son"). The first wife who doesn't believe in her husband's starry eyed dreams and tries to browbeat him back to reality. Granted, all of this actually did happen, but we've all heard this tune, too many times, before.

Things improve immensely once the film finds its musical hook. After a stint in the army, and inspired by the success of Elvis Presley and the Carter family, Cash persuades Sun Records' Sam Phillips to let him audition for his label. "Folsom Prison" wins over the soon-to-be-legendary producer and his first single, "Cry, Cry, Cry" is an instant hit.

Only 23, Cash joins Presley (Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Payne), and his radio dream girl June Carter (Witherspoon) on the road. Although each is married, June and Cash form a mutual admiration that blossoms into a turbulent but resilient relationship. His initial attempts to win her over following her divorce inspires him to compose his time "I Walk The Line". Drugs, booze, and groupies prove difficult for Cash to resist--destroying his first marriage and jeopardizing his career after an onstage collapse at The Sands in Las Vegas. But June, who admires Cash as much as she loves him, offers him a second-chance when he hits rock bottom. She'll write another classic, "Ring Of Fire", for him.

After proposing to June onstage in Toronto, Cash ignores the pleas of his management and insists on recording a live album at California's Folsom Prison that will become his defining testament.

While "Cop Land"s James Mangold displays a keen eye for gritty textures and evocative period details, he never strays far from TV movie terrain. It's the performances that make "I Walk The Line" a worthy experience. Phoenix wisely chooses to "suggest" Cash, rather than attempt an impersonation, ala Foxx in "Ray". He also provides his own singing vocals. Now, short of Andrew Philipe Gagnon, this would be a tall order for any performer, especially to mimic a voice so distinct and iconic. In an early sequence, when Phoenix's Cash first attempts "Folsom Prison Blues" for a skeptical Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at an impromptu audition, I thought Phoenix came close, but was unconvincing. But over the course of the film, his baritone improved. It's something to behold as Phoenix gradually becomes the legend as the Man In Black onscreen gains confidence and conviction (even more remarkable when you consider that most films are shot out of sequence).

Witherspoon, whose toothy, pointy-chinned wholesomeness beamed out of every other downtown Toronto bus shelter promoting the release of "Sweet Home Alabama" (and no less than three major magazine covers this week alone), has her own burden to bear: her current sentence in America's wholesome prison. The young actress lacks June Carter's earthy countenance, but her southern accent and plucky timing make for a convincing foil, muse, and life partner--to steal a line from Springsteen, she and Phoenix "crackle like crossed-wires". It's their very special chemistry that gives this otherwise rote biopic a fire missing from so many other of its ilk.

Robert Lewis