Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon literally light up the screen in “Walk the Line,” bringing to vibrant life Johnny Cash and his great love, June Carter.
“Walk the Line,” just released on DVD, tells the exhilarating and sometimes harrowing tale of the early years of “The Man in Black,” from rockabilly rebel to country music icon. But at its heart it’s an old-fashioned story of redemption–a haunted wayward man saved by the love of a good woman and his rediscovered faith.
Cash’s legend was built on a face and a voice of pure authenticity. Neither his face nor his voice was pretty, but both were as real as the heartaches, tough times and deep faith that echoed the lives of his legions of fans.
“Walk the Line” shows us how Cash earned that authenticity. Raised on a poor Arkansas cotton farm, Johnny and his older brother Jack worked long days in the fields, driven hard by their father, then a mean drunk and later an equally mean teetotaler.
Life was hard for the Cash boys, but they each found refuge in their own way—Jack in the Bible and Johnny in old-time hymns. In a revealing, early scene, young Johnny asks his brother, “Jack, how come you’re so good?” This is more a statement of admiration than of envy.
Johnny senses in himself a certain wildness that his obedient brother lacks. Their relationship is crucial and defines Cash’s essential nature—a good man who tended to stray without a strong hand to keep him on the right path.
Tragically, Jack is killed in a sawmill accident, while Johnny is off fishing. Johnny is devastated by the loss and crushed by his father’s biting assertion that, “You’re nothing! God took the wrong son.”
Guilt and self-doubt haunt Cash from this point on. He abandons his faith and finally escapes his family by joining the Air Force and shipping off to Germany.
Meaningless jobs and a possibly rash marriage follow his return to the states. Although his faith has ebbed, the gospel music of his youth still inspires him. He launches into a dizzying music career and meets June Carter, the youngest of country music’s legendary Carter Family.
Fatefully thrust together on the same rockabilly tour with young legends like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash and Carter (both married at the time) struggle with a shared attraction that can’t be consummated.
As their sometimes torturous courtship continues, the rigors of the road take their toll. June’s marriage crumbles, and Johnny’s slowly dies of neglect.
As if to match Elvis’ energy level and appetites, Johnny turns to pills and booze. Alternately fueled by amphetamines or numbed by alcohol, he cranks out hits and gives legendary performances. But the fall is inevitable, and when it comes, in front of a packed house in Las Vegas, it is heartbreaking. Depressing years of substance abuse, shattered relationships and jail time follow.
“Walk the Line” is a kind of companion piece to last year’s Ray Charles biopic, “Ray.” Each follows a brilliant, tortured artist from poverty, to fame, through infidelity and drug abuse, and finally to recovery and renewal. But while “Ray” shows a man who kicks drugs and silences his demons through sheer force of will, “Walk the Line” is about a man redeemed by love and faith.
June Carter was Johnny’s anchor and guide through the depths of addiction and self-destruction. It was her love and faith–and that of the rest of the devout Carter family–that brought Johnny back from the brink.
In one crucial scene, Johnny has gone cold turkey, with June at his bedside. “God has given you a second chance,” she explains, and this time, Johnny finally lets go and simply accepts it. He opens up to her about his feelings of unworthiness, his belief that his brother would have done so much good, while he has caused nothing but pain. She stands by him, comforts him, and later takes him to church–his first time in years.
The road back that led to 35 years of sobriety, and finally marriage to June, began with the simple act of accepting that although he was not “worthy,” he could still be forgiven by the gift of grace.
“Walk the Line” is an inspiring story about a man of faith who had literally been through hell, and about the second chances made possible through the power of what his old hymnal would have called “Amazing Grace.”
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.
Director: James Mangold
Writers: James Mangold and Gill Dennis
Cast: Johnny Cash: Joaquin Phoenix; June Carter: Reese Witherspoon; Vivian Liberto: Ginnifer Goodwin; Ray Cash: Robert Patrick.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
See our previous review of “Walk the Line.”