Saturday, December 24, 2005

Love is a Burning Thing

With just over a year between their release dates, Walk the Line is inescapably stuck in the shadow of Ray. This is very unfortunate because it is a better flowing film and the two lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter are of equal brilliance to Jamie Foxx’s, maybe even better. The opening 15 minutes are the film’s weakest but this is due to the regrettable obligation of the biopic that it include the isolated traumatic incident from the subject’s childhood that would continue to haunt and influence him through the rest of his life. Even The Aviator had to succumb to a brief childhood scene before plunging headlong into a contained portion of Howard Hughes’ life. Walk the Line follows a similar formula and chooses to center its story on the sliver of Cash’s life pertaining to the rocky beginnings of the beautiful love story between him and June Carter. Like Ray, The Aviator and other good biopics of late, the film is not exclusively laudatory of its subject and is uncompromising in its depiction of Cash’s disrespect and apathy toward his first wife and children.

Unlike Taylor Hackford, who littered Ray with color saturation and old-fashioned editing techniques like wipes or intros and outros, James Mangold executes understated direction that never calls attention away from the two lead performances. Phoenix and Witherspoon are thrust mercilessly onto front stage with no safety net. Rightfully so because these are two of the strongest performances of the year and probably the most even-balanced and complementary pairing since Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets.

Early on the film establishes that two of Cash’s defining qualities were the conviction he had for the words he sang and his desire to sing to someone. This is repeatedly conveyed through the direction of the musical numbers which surprisingly are framed predominantly in close-up. Crowd shots are sparse; most sequences consist of shot/reverse-shot patterns of Cash interacting with his target, whether it is a record producer, a Folsom prison inmate or the love of his life, June Carter. Phoenix and Witherspoon play these concert scenes with such energy and passion that the spectator can intrinsically sense that it is their own singing voices, even if it had not been so heavily publicized in the marketing.

In addition to the fantastic music and educational value, Walk the Line is one of the most genuine love stories of the year and the performances are truly exceptional. If anything, the film could have been about five minutes longer to reward the audience with more musical sequences in the last third; “Ring of Fire” feels criminally abridged. Perhaps the film’s biggest weakness is also a back-handed compliment, the musical numbers are so exquisitely executed and performed that the dramatic scenes feel less effective in comparison. This is too bad because Phoenix gives a full performance with some scenes that surely call upon the personal experience he had with his own brother.

1 comment:

Cinema Journal said...

Man, this movie sounds great. Perhaps over break.