For several weeks I saw Joaquin Phoenix in movie trailers looking a little less like Johnny Cash than I had hoped for since learning of Walk the Line’s production a couple years ago.
I’ve been a Cash fan since my college roommate introduced me to a few of his albums seven years ago. Since then, I’ve been hooked on both the man and the myth, though differentiating between the two is often difficult.
My fear was not only that Phoenix, who I admire for his role in Signs, was not quite Johnny-esque enough in character and stature, but that Reese Witherspoon would also fall short in the role of June Carter.
My fears were unfounded. Producers surely made a mistake by using the trailers and adverts to hype the believability of Phoenix as Cash (which I still feel failed). Instead, they could have captured the intense and endearing story the film tells. Instead of falling into the typical trappings of rock and roll hero storytelling – flawed but genius hero wrestling addiction and evading redemption and the women who love him – we actually see multidimensional characters struggling with complex sets of ambitions, motives and deep-seated insecurities and weaknesses.
Sun Records founder and mythic music legend Sam Phillips is only briefly potrayed, and Elvis Presley makes several appearances as a womanizing, chili-fry eating mischief who has yet to collapse under the weight of his own fame. The depths of supporting characters outside of Cash and Carter are carefully subdued as if not to steal the thunder that is brewing between them throughout the film’s initial acts.
Director James Mangold took a cue from Ray and took trust in the audience’s ability to see several layers and elements of depth to musical characters instead of relying on tired cliches. I went in with little trust of Magold, Phoenix and Witherspoon’s ability to effectively tell this story, but within minutes found myself on the edge of my seat anticipating the outcome of a story I already knew.
Though I have yet to see Capote, Walk the Line gets my vote for best film of 2005.