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Walk the Line Takes One Small Step in Telling Cash’s Story

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 14, 2013
<i>Walk the Line</i> Takes One Small Step in Telling Cash’s Story

Release Date:  November 18, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  136 min.
Director:  James Mangold
Actors:  Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick

“Walk the Line,” the second Hollywood bio pic about an American music icon in as many years (following last year’s “Ray”), finds firm footing from a strong performance by Joaquin Phoenix. But in telling its redemptive story in mainly human terms, the film is much less powerful than it might otherwise have been.

Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, a tormented singer who rises to the peak of popularity before descending into self-destructive behavior. Director James Mangold frames the story around Cash’s famous Folsom Prison concert, using flashbacks to reveal Cash’s early influences. These include an older brother who died in childhood, an abusive father (Robert Patrick) who voices regret that Johnny was spared his brother’s fate, and a mother who instilled a love of hymnody in the younger boy.

Johnny gets married and has a family, but his efforts to settle down into a career as a door-to-door salesman never take root. Instead, he ingratiates himself with record producer Sam Phillips, who challenges Cash to sing something other than the stock gospel renditions popular at the time – something that Cash feels deep down, because, Phillips says, “that’s the kind of song that saves people.”

“It’s got nothing to do with believing in God,” he tells John. “It’s about believing in yourself.”

And with that encouragement, Johnny Cash – the persona, the Man in Black – is born. Cash’s lawless streak dovetailed with the burgeoning rock-and-roll scene, allowing him, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Roy Orbison, to tap into a youth movement eager for new musical approaches and styles.

Cash’s success takes him on tour, and away from his wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) and family, slowly eroding the bonds of marriage and family life. His growing weakness for female groupies is superceded only by his interest in June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a fellow performer who joins Cash for several performances. Recently divorced, Carter initially resists Cash’s advances and marries another man, but the two singers eventually break their marital vows and sleep together. Carter’s second marriage ends, as does Cash’s first, but Carter turns down Cash’s persistent proposals of marriage thereafter, fearing commitment to the drug-addicted musician.

The film is anchored by compelling performances from Phoenix and Witherspoon, and the strong re-creations of music from the 1950s and 1960s. The film’s musical performances are among its best scenes, bristling with energy and surprisingly effective vocals from Phoenix and the other actors, who perform the songs in their own voices.

But the story of Johnny Cash’s Christian rebirth is not the story told in “Walk the Line.” The filmmakers don’t shy away from the cultural trappings of gospel music, and of Cash’s upbringing under a godly mother, but they stop short of showing Cash’s own deep religious conversion. Carter’s role in that gospel transformation is hinted at but not made entirely clear.

This decision – to cut Cash’s story off at the point at which it likely would be most interesting to religious viewers – has serious implications for the film itself. Rather than watching a story of the power of redemption, we mostly see a film about the destructiveness of sin, and of marital unfaithfulness. In that, we learn little that we haven’t seen in numerous other films about troubled souls who find solace and peace in each other’s arms.

Although human love was a potent force in the life of Johnny Cash, it was not the ultimate transforming power that the movie implies. While “Walk the Line” doesn’t completely ignore the faith of the Cashes, it stops well short of exploring it in sufficient depth, telling only the first half of a beautiful story of God’s transforming grace. We’re left with a scene toward the end of the film of Johnny and June entering a church service, and with June’s encouragement to Johnny that “God has given you a second chance to make things right” — a powerful message that demands a sequel.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and adults


  • Language/Profanity:  “A” word, “F” word, “S” word, “hell”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  John smokes, drinks, and becomes addicted to prescription drugs.
  • Sex/Nudity:  John cheats on his first wife with numerous groupies, then with June, who is also married.
  • Violence:  John’s father is verbally abusive and physically intimidating both toward the boys and their mother; in a rage, John destroys his guitar and a hotel room; John attacks his first wife in front of their children.
  • Crime:  John abuses prescription drugs.
  • Religion:  June gives John a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” telling him it's “amazing”; a woman accuses June of being an “abomination” before the Lord because of her divorce.