While Johnny Cash's life is certainly a goldmine of raw material with much inherent drama, filmmakers have been down similar roads so many times before the narrative can't help feel a bit like day-old bread. But Phoenix gives a dead-on, intriguing performance that contrasts quite nicely with Witherspoon's Oscar-winning one, and his long courtship with her is quite sweet and charming yet is also often contentious and feels very authentic.
The Blu-ray offers a clean presentation of the film with extras ported over from the February 2006 DVD and April 2006 2-disc Special Edition.
Almost exactly like the John Carpenter-Kurt Russell Elvis TV-movie, Walk the Line begins at a similar turning point in the singer's career, in 1968, just before Cash is about to go onstage at Folsom State Prison. Cash's life story then unfolds conventionally in linear flashback from about age 12. (Elvis also begins in 1968, just before Presley is due to go onstage at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, before that film switches to his early days, also from about age 12.)
Raised by a bitter cotton-picker father in rural Arkansas, Johnny Cash, then legally simply J.R. (his parents couldn't decide on a name), is shaped by his father's stated preference for J.R.'s older brother, J.R.'s love of country music on the radio (including listening to a young June Carter) and by his older brother's horrific death following a sawmill accident, a tragedy from which Cash never really recovered.
After a stint in the Air Force he marries girlfriend Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin) and, against her wishes, launches a music career which kicks into high gear after his unusual talent is recognized by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). Though touring in the middle-1950s with a line-up of big league stars including Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice) brings Cash plenty of dough, his needy, lonely wife remains dissatisfied, and her frustration grows as they have more kids.
Cash meanwhile is drawn to June Carter, also touring with the group, but the newly-divorced show-business veteran is reluctant to get involved with a married man. At the same time, the already heavy-drinking Cash is offered amphetamines (by Elvis himself!) signaling Cash's long downward spiral into drug and alcohol addiction.
Despite a strong sense of been there/done that, Walk the Line is nonetheless engrossing thanks to the two leads. Neither looks much like their real-life counterpart, but each does a remarkable job channeling their essence; the reticent Cash must have been extremely difficult to capture, but Phoenix has got all of his unusual tics down pat. (Other famous names are curiously cast with actors who look nothing less like them. The actor playing a young Elvis is almost unrecognizable, while Payne, as Jerry Lee Lewis, looks less like that singer than James Dean with badly bleached hair.)
Not a fan of Phoenix's film work before this, what really sold me was his audition scene with no-nonsense Sam Phillips. After Phillips's blunt assessment of Cash's mechanical rendition of "I Was There When It Happened," the desperate performer offers instead a song he wrote while in the Air Force: "Folsom Prison Blues." The feeling utterly lacking in the earlier song in this more personal work bubbles up from within. This may not be exactly how the real Cash was signed with Sun Records, but the power and uniqueness of Cash's talent that convinced Phillips put him under contract is apparent in Phoenix's delivery.
Phoenix also captures Cash's persistent uneasiness, the awkward facial gestures, the sweating and shifting of his body, like a bank robber trying to act natural while nervously awaiting an overdue getaway car. An uncomfortable live performer - at least that's how he appears - he makes an interesting contrast with Witherspoon's June, a natural comedienne and ad-libber who onstage comes off as effortlessly polished and relaxed.
They become a couple the audience roots for, this despite the fact that Cash does so at the expense of his own marriage and relationship with his kids (and the disapproval of many of June's fans). This is supposed to be offset by making Cash's first wife appear irredeemably self-involved, but this feels like a screenwriter's cop-out. The same holds true for Johnny's S.O.B. of a father; what makes him so nasty all the time? Yes, the filmmakers establish his preference for the older son over J.R., and this clearly fuels his non-existent self-esteem, but what drives the father, who was a jerk even before the boy died?
Video & Audio
Filmed in Super 35, Walk the Line is presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical release format and looks just dandy. I found nothing especially remarkable about the image, but it's up to contemporary standards to be sure. I was glad to see mixes were offered in both a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo mix for those with more modest sound; 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in French and Spanish are also offered, along with subtitles in Spanish, Korean, and Cantonese.
Supplements are identical to the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD from 2006: Included is an audio commentary with co-writer and director James Mangold; deleted scenes with optional commentary (in high-def); extended musical scenes (in high-def); three behind-the-scenes featurettes in standard-definition; and a high-def trailer.
Though its script is for the most part conventional Walk the Line's leading performances are captivating, so much so that they more than compensate for the picture's ordinariness in other ways. And Johnny and June Carter Cash's lives and romance are so inherently interesting, a dull movie is practically impossible. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.