The man in … grey?

Cash biopic reverential, but not gritty enough

First things first: Any movie about Johnny Cash that’s worth a damn should be rated R. Certainly there’s enough death, fire, flood and pestilence in the man’s life to merit something more than a PG-13. Alas, the makers of Walk the Line have decided to narrow their focus to something a little tamer, more mall-friendly, more like Behind the Music — a redemption romance between the simmering, volatile Cash and his second wife, the angelic June Carter. Knowing that, it’s possible to enjoy writer-director James Mangold’s film for what it is: a flawlessly performed, beautifully shot, reverential tribute to the man and the love of his life. But even non-Cashophiles will get the feeling that something’s been left out, and rightfully so.

As with last year’s Ray, the script sorts through scores of events in the subject’s upbringing, and uses one major trauma — the death of a sibling — as a framing device. Resented by his father (Robert Patrick) and musically nurtured by his mother (Shelby Lynne), the young Cash sets off for the service; upon his return, he’s eager to marry his reluctant, ultimately resentful girlfriend Vivian (promising newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin). John’s barely making rent when he and his car-mechanic band audition for a skeptical Sam Phillips in Memphis. But just a few montage sequences later, they’re touring with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and country sweetheart, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). While John’s puppy-dog attraction to June turns into a slow smolder, he’s introduced to the pastime of pill-popping, and later, full-blown addiction. But as any VH-1 viewer knows, the path to love, God and astronomical success is paved with vomit, breakdowns and minor incarceration.

Mangold has chosen to focus on Cash and Carter’s electrifying stage performances at the expense of any back-story about the songs; the strategy helps the movie avoid cheesy moments-of-inspiration scenes, but it also ignores the irony of how a man who’d never been to prison could write so compellingly about murder and crime.

Thankfully, with musical guru T-Bone Burnett on board, Walk the Line has some thrilling, utterly authentic concert scenes, voiced by the actors themselves. Phoenix’s small stature and still baby-faced features aren’t as rough and worn as the young Cash’s, but what he lacks in genetics he makes up with a growling baritone and an unmistakable swagger. After making a career out of chipper-but-tough heroines, the role of Carter may at first seem like one Witherspoon could perform in her sleep. But the actress finds a way to tap into the twice-divorced Carter’s sense of shame, so much so that she makes up for Mangold’s inability to explore how someone so sweet could write a song as dark and profound as “Ring of Fire.”

The movie is impeccably cast, down to the smallest role. Detroiter and Blanche frontman Dan Miller makes a strong impression as Cash’s right-hand guitar picker, Luther Perkins; his deadpan delivery and gaunt appearance make him seem like he just walked out of a Coen brothers film.

In many ways, that’s exactly what Walk the Line is missing: the comic, poetic feel of a movie like the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou, or even the surreal, mystical struggle between good and evil that you might see in a David Lynch movie. As it stands, Mangold has delivered a subtle, understated, technically accomplished biography, anchored by a pair of revelatory star turns. But as good as it is, the movie will offend no one, and that’s the last thing you’d ever say about Johnny Cash.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].