I fell into a burning ring of something. The late Johnny Cash was not a man-in-black above cultivating his own myth. He authorized this biopic long before his death in 2003, and it gets the basso sepulchral voice right thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s galvanizing central performance. Still, there’s never any sense of why this guy feared hellfire beyond the grave. In Ray you could at least understand that Jamie Foxx was playing a fucked-up heroin addict who lied and cheated and misbehaved, and those qualities were inseparable from his genius. Line, by contrast, proceeds in an overly straight line (meeting the usual celebs along the way): This is the story of a sharecropper’s son with a dark side—never matter what that might be!—who flirted with drugs and devilry but was rescued by the love of a good Christian woman. Don’t we have Disney movies for that?
For different reasons, Disney would also probably cast Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, the feisty, benevolent rescuer who plies her trade, initially, as a comic and not a true musician. Both Cash and Line see more to her than that, and I’m glad: Witherspoon doesn’t allow June to be a helpmeet or doormat to the man she eventually loves. This is a film where her saying no to Cash (and repeatedly) means a lot more than her saying yes. As in her best roles (unlike Just Like Heaven), Witherspoon is the opposite of a pushover. Her best quality is smiling resistance, the sweetly immovable object to Phoenix’s dourly irresistible force. (I’d accept Jesus, too, if she were selling.)
Even if James Mangold’s movie is entirely familiar and predictable, though, Phoenix doesn’t let Cash’s redemption seem inevitable. His silent brooding communicates more than a dozen pages of dialogue; only in song does Cash plainly reveal his constitutional dolor—and occasional glints of joy. (And yes, that’s Phoenix doing his own singing, as does Witherspoon.) Adhering to Cash’s two sanctioned autobiographies, however, Line irons out the artist’s psychological complexity into a repeated (and tedious) cycle of tragedy and hit song, tragedy and hit song—as if nobody ever wrote a pop single simply because a catchy melody came into their head.
Somehow Cash’s sorrows simply translate into his first big hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,” written while in the Air Force during the early ’50s and first auditioned for a skeptical Sam Phillips at Sun Records. It’s a lovely, telling scene, patiently played by Dallas Roberts as the young producer who tells Cash to abandon pokey, derivative spirituals in favor of “something real, something you felt,” to sing like it was the last song he’d ever sing. Cash tentatively yet urgently chugs into “Folsom Prison,” his band barely knowing the chords, and achieves full personhood during the course of the song. (It also seems Phoenix’s voice drops an octave in the process.) Much later, when June has rescued Cash from his vague demons, she takes him to church, where we can hear the choir in the parking lot. By then his journey over the line into darkness has been reversed. But as Phillips would tell us, the problem with this scene is what’s wrong with the whole movie: It doesn’t take us inside. (PG-13)