Allow me to start my ambivalent reaction to Walk the Line by going after some low-hanging fruit and saying that the film itself walks its own line between a solid level of craftsmanship and an undeniable roteness in how it enacts and presents its own narrative. It’s never bad or even embarrassing in displaying the lives of Johnny Cash and June Carter, though its utter conventionality is marred by how little inventiveness it employs to pull their lives over, and the energy of the piece is astoundingly stodgy. It’s not just that you’ve seen this story before, but you could probably watch some of them in the time it takes to sit through this 136 minute endeavor. In no case, from performance to trajectory to direction, whether you knew anything about the real musicians going into it, do you learn any new ideas about these people from the moment you meet them. By the end, I actually had more questions about why Johnny and June were even together in the first place, and plenty of other odd structural questions as the film’s seemingly endless conclusions kept happening and happening. Walk the Line doesn’t want to be a slog, but the base quality of filmmaking would suggest a slightly more ambitious project than the one we end up getting. It’s barely inspired, requiring more than any one contributor wants to give.
I didn’t know that Johnny Cash recorded a live album in a prison, which may have been the only moment of the film where my confusion came from not knowing anything about Cash walking into this. But from there on in, I’d be hard pressed to call anything the film does anything but predictable. Even if I wasn’t immediately sure which brother was Johnny, the sheer happiness of their scenes in contrast with the monstrous father and serene but unintrusive mother already suggesting a killing of the spare. We know he will die not just because of their against-all-odds happiness in the face of the life they’re living, but the transition to this boyhood sequence sees Johnny staring at a buzz saw, much like the one his brother has trouble using before being carved up. After a scene of domestic terror following the funeral a grown Johnny is sent off to Germany, where the casual inclusion of all his never-to-be-seen-again brothers and sisters loping around outside the house may be the most visually interesting shot in the film. A scene on the phone between Johnny and his fianceé is literally the only moment we see this woman happy about the idea or fact of being married to Johnny Cash. She is specifically against being married to Johnny Cash The Musician, and we are forced to watch the couple trot through escalations of the same basic scene of Vivian seemingly resisting the idea of interacting with his musical career in the slightest. I actively starting wondering by her second scene, as the sight and sound of Johnny and his burgeoning band practicing on their front porch sends her crying into the bathroom out of shame at his inability to make it big, what she ever wanted to do with him. From there on her righteous fury will come out of feeling isolated from Johnny because of his success and suspicious of June, not wanting to discuss either to keep them at bay.
It is hard to single out Ginnifer Goodwin for not adding more to her scenes, though Vivian Cash is perhaps the most immediately obvious example of the film’s total conventionality. And to be fair, it’s not as though we have any real idea of what Johnny sees in her either, though a lot of what people see in each other and think of themselves seem alarmingly opaque at the moments they most need support. At a certain point, I just couldn’t see why June put up with such an unrepentant mess as Johnny Cash, even if he was so beneficial to her career. I couldn’t see why Johnny would keep following a woman doing her damndest at times to stay out of his life, even taking in all of the moments she so happily wanted to be in his life. Why should we care when Johnny’s father shows up late in the film and begins criticizing his son’s life when all we’ve seen of this man is his alcohol-induced terrorizing of his whole family? What is there to make of the late-in-the-film pathologizing of being so reliant on his father for approval about his life, and why does the film so uncomplicatedly hand over this sermonizing to a man who we’ve only ever seen as a terror to Johnny’s wellbeing? “I’ve been off the drink for years.” he says, or something like it, and the film grants Robert Patrick a generous zoom-in close-up as he upbraids Johnny’s high-horse for defending a lifestyle his father rightly sees through as empty, but why the fuck should we care what he has to say? It’s not an uninteresting prospect had it been expanded upon, the father fixing himself up while his son collapses, but jamming it in near the end, especially when June ultimately gives herself unto the role of Official Johnny Cash Ressurrector, feels completely unearned and unneeded.
Pardon the divergence towards an amazingly minor character, but when it comes to Johnny and June as realized by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, and how Walk the Line was directed by James Mangold, my reaction across the board is a noncommittal shrug. I’ll at least say that the first sequence where Johnny meets June, June accidentally getting caught in strapping Johnny Cash’s guitar strap, their musical performances, a talk later that night at a bar. Even the terrible family dinner where Cash’s father makes the speech I just criticized and the subsequent scene of June attempting to swear off Cash being met with reproach by her mother had some energy to it. The film certainly has its lines, its moments. Mangold is able to give the concert scenes a real energy, and both actors are musically talented enough to make them compelling to sit through. It’s not as though later performing scenes lack the energy on display here, though this does seem like the only musical number that lacks any blatant narrative triage. It’s one thing to see June compose “Ring of Fire” after a particularly bad encounter with Johnny, but it’s another to see Johnny and June happily duet “It Ain’t Me Babe” as Vivian Cash sits stone-faced in the front row, holding onto her children like a vice. Too often songs are used in a theatrical sense, not so much forwarding plot but highlighting an emotional tension that’s already pretty noticeable in a film with not a lot of plates spinning. This isn’t necessarily bad, though it would work better if the film was a straight-up musical instead of a biopic that frequently uses the artist’s songs as though that was the case. The indefatigable stage personas of Johnny and June especially are never cracked by their interpreters unless it’s in a monumentally obvious, scripted way, like June running offstage after being trapped in singing a song painful to her past, or Johnny collapsing onstage after an overdose. As note-perfect as their stage personas are rendered by Phoenix and Witherspoon, Mangold and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis only ask us to understand their relationship developments onstage in the songs they sing, not how they interact with each other while they sing these songs.
Which brings me, I guess, to the central issue I have with Walk the Line. As I said, Mangold’s basic level of filmmaking here is too high to call the film actively bad, his leads too solid to embarrass the film. But fine craftsmanship and note-perfect imitation doesn’t make up for how dry and slow this picture is. Oscar-nominated editor Michael McCusker (the most horrendous recognition Walk the Line achieved) is surely partially to blame for how slow the film feels, but that doesn’t take away how impassionately and conventionally realized the film is by Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon. The remarkably limited color palette, only ever broken out of by certain numbers in Ariana Phillips’ Oscar-nominated costumes (my favorite recognition Walk the Line achieved), keeps the film as visually dull as it is energetically low. June’s outfits and some random women in the crowds at least have vivid reds, blues, whites, even the brown of June’s hair is in contrast to the dull colors of the production design and the cinematography. Johnny all-black ensemble never stood out much, and Vivian’s outfits seem to dress her up as some kind of proud, protective wife/mother. It’s more information about her than the script or Goodwin ever gives us, and certainly more than Mangold does. For all the physical and vocal recreations that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon ably pull off, you can feel how limited the performances frequently are, not just on the script level but in how the principle actors don’t even try to dig deeper than the superficial levels of their characters on the page. Even if the script doesn’t seem to give much reason for June and Johnny to want to be together, a capable pair of performers could certainly have sparked off enough charisma to make me run with it. It’s not just that they’re hemmed in by a weak script, they make no legitimate effort to color in their characters or make their own decisions about them.
What we’re left with here is basically the milquetoast, uninspired blueprint of the tortured artist biopic. It’s the definition of meh across the board, and as much as I wish for a better version of this film, I’m almost equally interested in a worse version that at least has its horribleness going for it. I’ve said that it’s a boring film almost a million times in this paper, and I just don’t have the energy to say it one more time. To anyone watching this for its Oscarness (as I did, and thus hope to never have to deal with it again), knock it off when you’re not really in the mood to watch anything. Maybe being as low-energy as Walk the Line will put you in sync enough to get how Reese Witherspoon’s admittedly buoyant but slim turn steamrolled the Best Actress race, or why this film got any acclaim at all. I’d be happy to listen to Cash and Carter’s albums if anyone asked. But this is a limp thing, and I’m happy to leave it behind.