Just as I began contemplating walking out of the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line—it was when Cash is in the throes of a drug addiction withdrawal scene ripped off from the movie Ray—I turned my head and saw the middle-aged woman next to me dabbing her tears with a handkerchief. I found the display deeply surprising and somehow unsettling; I’ve been more emotionally affected by Kenny’s death in most episodes of South Park than I was by any scene in this movie.
But my weepy neighbor was not alone in her judgment, as Walk the Line puzzlingly has garnered rave reviews and instantaneous Oscar hype. Film critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert gave the movie three-and-a-half stars. Granted, the luster of that particular review is somewhat diminished by Ebert’s dubious track record—he gave a generous two-and-a-half stars to Gigli, the Ben Affleck comedy/romance that is now usually found in the horror/disaster section of the video store.
Ebert’s praise for Walk the Line, however, echoes the majority of critics who especially have lauded Joaquin Phoenix’s enfeebled starring performance as Johnny Cash. The accolades are sorely misplaced. Every time Phoenix appears on the screen, I couldn’t help thinking: “That’s not Johnny Cash, that’s an actor who is River Phoenix’s brother.” Joaquin plays a rather pathetic, drug-addled creature that lacks any hint of Johnny Cash’s warmth, humor, charm, or mystery, even in the few scenes when the character is sober. The story mostly revolves around his relationship with June (capably played by Reese Witherspoon), but the romance founders because it’s impossible to believe a strong-willed, self-respecting woman like June could find anything attractive about this dreary nullity who has apparently time-traveled 2,000 years since we last saw him in Gladiator. When Joaquin/Cash’s domineering father, who is supposed to be a villainous character, calls him a pill-popping loser in front of June and her family, I couldn’t help but admire the old man’s honesty.
The movie’s core problem is the utter unoriginality of the story. Despite the presence of numerous Johnny Cash songs, there’s no exploration of what made Cash’s music unique and daring. The film is just a stereotypical tale of a celebrity who, having risen from humble beginnings to achieve sudden fame, overindulges in booze, drugs, and womanizing, hits bottom, and finally sobers up and revives his career. It’s the plot of every “E! True Hollywood Story” and “VH-1 Behind the Music” ever made. The film isn’t even a story so much as a series of clichés. All that’s missing is a black guy who dies early and a mobster who sees a psychiatrist.
In order to establish the tired Hollywood trope that Christians are strange and intolerant people, the movie inserts several incongruous scenes that serve no purpose other than to ridicule Christianity: when Cash’s brother dies young, his unhinged father yells out, “The devil took him! The devil took the wrong son!” Jerry Lee Lewis inexplicably launches into a fire and brimstone tirade declaiming that he, Cash, and all their listeners are going to hell for the songs they sing; and a typical illiberal Christian woman approaches June in a store and, for absolutely no reason, tells her that June’s divorce was an “abomination.” Thus it comes as no surprise when the story of Cash’s real-life conversion into an evangelical Christian is reduced to an insignificant ten-second scene in which he and June walk from a parking lot toward a church.
Due to the filmmakers’ discomfort with Christianity, the film ignores the entire aspect of Cash’s career that was occupied by gospel music. For example, the record producer at his first audition reacts to Cash’s performance of a gospel song by telling Cash that gospel doesn’t sell and that Cash obviously doesn’t believe in all that “I’ve been saved” nonsense anyway. He tells Cash to play something that really means something to him, so Cash plays a secular country tune and gets the contract. The film implies that this marks Cash’s abandonment of gospel, as henceforth it makes no other reference to Cash’s gospel music, except when the warden at Folsom prison self-servingly asks Cash to play gospel instead of his edgy prison-themed songs in order to keep from stirring up the inmates (Cash, of course, refuses). Cash’s real-life decision to leave his original record label partly because it prohibited him from recording gospel albums (of which he would record many throughout his career) is omitted from the film.
Having insulted the religion to which Johnny Cash dedicated much of his life, the movie jarringly ends in 1968, as if the end of Cash’s drug abuse and womanizing left nothing interesting to tell of the following 35 years of his life. It never explores the fascinating duality of Johnny Cash that was reflected so strongly in his music—the outlaw Man in Black who was deeply enmeshed in Christian spirituality. Instead, we are treated to a story whose starring character is essentially Robert Downey Jr. in a black shirt. I suppose there’s a reason why Walk the Line could bring a person to tears, but it lies more in the film’s hilariously trite stereotypes and comically formulaic storytelling than in its critically-acclaimed quality.