The UnPopular Opinion: Walk The Line
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
There are certain types of movies that are what neatly fit into the category of Oscar Bait. You know the movies: melodramatic films that usually feature a romance between lovers, one of whom is often dying, the other dealing with a traumatic life event or drug addiction. These films are often set in a historical timeframe, often during World War II, and occasionally feature someone coming from nothing and reaching success only to have it snatched from their grasp before somehow regaining it for a happy ending. These movies have often taken trophies in every category, sometimes in the same year. But, in hindsight, they often lack something that would make them great movies. WALK THE LINE is one of those films.
James Mangold’s biopic of Johnny Cash has everything that should automatically make it a Best Picture nominee before anyone had seen the film. In fact, WALK THE LINE fits nearly all of the criteria listed above. Hell, if it had featured anything about the Holocaust, it likely would have beaten the equally lackluster CRASH that year. While WALK THE LINE was not nominated for Best Picture in 2005, it did garner nominations in five categories and took home accolades from several other critical groups. I am still left baffled why this movie is so beloved and went as far as to sell three million copies when it hit DVD. Like RAY and the recent released GET ON UP, WALK THE LINE suffers from being a generic and watered down Hollywood fairy tale version of a true life story.
I sense a color scheme going on here but cannot quite put my finger on it.
Even non-country music fans know the rags to riches story of Johnny Cash. There is drug addiction, a tragic death during his childhood, and marriage followed by finding true love. Clearly this means Johnny Cash deserves to have his tale told on the big screen. The problem is, aside from the genre-defying music and famous musicians he played with during his career, there is just not enough to warrant a feature film. By choosing to only examine the first half of Cash’s life and career leading up to his marriage to June Carter, James Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis limited their own tale. Along with that, WALK THE LINE is based off of Cash’s own autobiographies and yet smacks of Hollywood revisionism.
The hilarious spoof WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY took all of the same elements from WALK THE LINE and showcased just how generic Mangold’s film actually is. There is really nothing special in this film that elevates to more than the caliber of a network television movie. Everything looks like it was filmed on a studio backlot without any of the flair or style we would see in Mangold’s subsequent films like 3:10 TO YUMA, KNIGHT AND DAY, and THE WOLVERINE. WALK THE LINE doesn’t even have any of the style from the director’s prior films, IDENTITY and COPLAND. How could a filmmaker get stuck with such a creatively devoid on screen product? Likely due to studio involvement as Johnny Cash’s children have openly stated their criticism at the film and how their parents were portrayed.
The Man in Black fled across the desert and The Gunslinger followed.
But, a movie like WALK THE LINE is generally lauded for the performances and not the movie, right? I mean, Reese Witherspoon did win the Oscar for playing June Carter, but it ranks as one of the most undeserving trophies in recent Oscar memory. Sure, she can sing, but her modicum of screen-time was at best a supporting actress award. Joaquin Phoenix himself was good in the lead role but not great. Phoenix has been far more deserving in roles before and after WALK THE LINE. In fact, when looking at biopics in general, you have actors who do great impressions of the person they are playing (Jamie Foxx in RAY) and those who embody their counterpart while also delivering an oustanding performance (Eddie Redmayne in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING). Phoenix is a phenomenal talent, but his Johnny Cash feels neither like an impression nor a truly monumental performance. For those who have seen Oliver Stone's U-TURN, Phoenix feels like he is using his Toby N. Tucker character as a jumping off point for playing Cash.
The music is what makes WALK THE LINE so memorable. People who are not into country music or know much about Johnny Cash likely feel that the man was a larger than life character based on how the movie showcases him. We get his iconic musical moments including Folsom Prison and his proposal to June, but the movie feels like part one of a larger tale. Focusing a biopic on a specific part of a life has worked for other films, but WALK THE LINE builds up like an all-encompassing portrait of Johnny Cash only to abruptly end when it is staring to get good. While Cash's later life was not nearly as interesting as the first, maybe that was a signal that it wasn't film worthy.
Everyone looks so excited to be here. And look: more black!
WALK THE LINE is a fine movie, but is in no way memorable. What we take away from seeing it is the music of Johnny Cash which is neither enhanced by the film nor revolutionized. If there was a kit for filmmaking by the numbers, this is a prime example. Movies do not always have to inspire or rouse us or even do something different than films before it, but they should do something. WALK THE LINE does nothing. After the film ends and the credits roll, you are likely to ask yourself "was that it?" and no movie worth a damn should ever garner a reaction like that. In fact, if WALK THE LINE succeeds at anything it is showing us what to avoid when trying to tell a true life story. By walking the line, this movie goes down in a ring of fire.
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