Walk the Line: Extended Cut (2005) dir. James Mangold
Starring: Jaoquin Phoenix, Reece Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick
James Mangold had a difficult job. Encompass the life of the great singer Johnny Cash, and avoid the 'greatest hits' form of biopic storytelling. James Mangold chooses to tell his story with traditional conventions of the genre and indeed succeeds within this framework. I know it’s very simplistic to compare the films, but "Walk the Line" arrived a year after "Ray" and unfortunately it suffers from its familiarity.
The film begins with Mr. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) preparing for his legendary performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. As his band thumps along playing the intro to his first song, Cash sits by himself in the green room staring at a circular saw – memories of which would take us back to his formative childhood years. The film then charts the life and career of Johnny Cash from the poor farmer’s kid with an abusive father (Robert Patrick) to his life in the military, his life as humble father and husband to his burgeoning and eventually successful career as music superstar and icon. And along the way the career of country singer June Carter (Reece Witherspoon) crosses paths and causes sparks. When fame hits Cash he finds himself succumbing to the vices of the industry and soon finds himself separated, drug addicted and alone. And it’s his relationship with June that will eventually bring him back to fulfill his life and career.
There’s a lot of familiar territory in Mangold’s film. One of Cash’s personal demons is his need for personal redemption and absolving himself of his own responsibility for his brother’s death. The power his father Ray continues to hold over him despite all his success and power is well played. And the Thanksgiving Dinner scene between Phoenix and Patrick is one of the best moments in the film. It comes two hours into the film and the build up of a lifetime of frustration comes with a wonderful cathartic exchange between the two characters.
Reece Witherspoon won an Academy Award for her role as the loving and conflicted June Carter. Since the film dramatizes events before they got married the film becomes about Cash’s long courtship of the reluctant June. June, who comes from a music business family, knows the trappings and vices of the industry. But June is also a good Christian and a traditionalist when it comes to family, and she, herself, feels a sinner for not holding her previous marriage together and her responsibility as the other woman that broke up Cash’s marriage. It’s a great romance that comes together as an act of sheer force of nature. And the final coda which tells the audience that Johnny and June stayed married for till death did them ‘part puts the entire film into perspective.
But the great performances, and wonderful music, just does not seem enough. Biopics are one of the toughest genres to get right. The film charts a path so familiar nothing seems fresh or original. The flashbacks to his childhood, his abusive father, lingering childhood memories which continue to haunt him in present, drug problems, groupies etc etc were easy pickings for Mangold. “Walk the Line” is also bathed in a degree of heavy-handed earnestness, instead of embracing the edge-pushing badass Cash's legend portrays himn as.
Though I hated “I’m Not There” I appreciated Todd Haynes’ attempt to make a film opposite to “Walk the Line” and “Ray”. The trend could have seen another more conventional filmmaker turn Bob Dylan’s story into another traditional biopic film. But Haynes explored this idea of rock myth with a narrative structure that skirted these familiar story benchmarks.
"Walk the Line" is back on DVD shelves again with a new two-disc set and an 'extended cut'. As with most extended cuts, it doesn't change the film significantly enough to notice without a scene-by-scene comparison. The second disc which appears to be chock full of interesting documentaries is essentially one rudimentary featurette cut up into 4 or 5 parts. The most disappointing aspect is the lack of real footage of Cash. Every aneqdote of Cash is visualized with stills or scenes from Phoenix and Witherspoon instead of the real Cash and Carter.
"Walk the Line" is expertly written, directed and performed and every viewer will weigh this with its inherant familiarity. As for adding another version of this film to your collection, avid fans will be the most disappointed. Enjoy.