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Movie of the Day: Walk the Line (2005)

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…”
The story of country legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is told through his ongoing romance with fellow singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and how they get through tough times, from Cash's pill popping addiction to Carter's own marital troubles until finally agreeing to marry Cash.
The focus on Johnny and June is what makes this movie so compelling. It serves as a filter: every detail about Johnny's career doesn't have be shown, we don't have to follow his life until he dies, and so forth. Instead, we can focus on the topic of Johnny and June, and the movie has a story with a structure and a happy ending. It also serves to make this movie more intimate than most biopics: we see Johnny's personal life, not only in short clips, but as a continuing theme throughout. It makes him more human. Stellar performances from both lead actors, particularly Reese Witherspoon, who portrays June's compelling personality very well. The chemistry between the two lead actors is great.
The childhood scenes also worked. In most biopics, these are very short and seem like gratuitous foreshadowing of the star's later career (see the otherwise brilliant Man on the Moon, for example). Here that was avoided by focusing on the brother's tragic death. That and the father's attitude served to explain Cash's problems later in life, and they weren't overdone. The death was touching, but not too dramatized; it seemed fairly realistic. We got to see just enough of Jack and the family dynamics to understand how devastating his death would be for the others.
Of course, the thing with biopics is that if you've seen enough of the genre you'll presume you'll know how the story will unfold up until the credits and then you can figure out the theme of life-affirmation. But that's hardly fair with the point of the movie. The film is about the character of Cash and how his humanity has failed to cope with everything that's happened in his story. Mangold and his co-writer Gill Dennis brilliantly stayed faithful to the story of the man they were paying their respects to.
"Walk the Line" is set in the post-World War II era, with culture in general and music in particular experiencing a great transition. It's underlined with a cinematography that borders on retrospective. There's one gorgeous shot during one of Cash and his band's performance which I think was done somewhat in high contrast, and it added a touch of sophistication and subtlety to the scene. It's this great use of technique that gives the film its emotional impact.
Of course, no review of the film is ever complete without saying something about the performances of the leads. Honestly, I think this is Phoenix's best performance to date. His authentic portrayal of the legendary singer is complemented with great crooning and such a delicate tenderness. Witherspoon's performance gives soul to the film, and her understated voice is a joy to listen to. She proves how talented actor she is and that she's more than the roles she usually plays. Because you’re mine, I walk the line… 9/10


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