Craig Lucas' hateful Dying Gaul. Plus, Walk the Line never wobbles.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Nov. 18 2005 1:23 PM

The Living Gall

Craig Lucas' hateful Dying Gaul. Plus, Walk the Line never wobbles.

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"The implication is that because of Elaine's cruelty toward the screenwriter (when she discovers that he's sleeping with her husband, she pretends to be the ghost of his dead lover communicating with him via the Internet), she is at least partly responsible for her own demise. And Jeffrey, the father of those children, bears some responsibility, too: for using Robert sexually—while masquerading as a straight man and attempting to purge the gay content from Robert's prized screenplay.

"This strikes me as a gay persecution/revenge fantasia, and it's reasonable to infer that it was fueled by Lucas' grief over Rene's death (and possibly his experiences in Hollywood). And I take issue with your implication that I don't object strenuously to heterosexual revenge fantasies against gays—of which there are, I agree, many. I try to be an equal-opportunity disparager of this kind of grossness, in whatever form it takes. But I am especially sensitive to (and have written ad nauseam about) movies that exploit the death of small children for cheap shocks.

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"Let me add that I regret very much if the review comes off as homophobic. It certainly is intemperate."

Phoenix and Witherspoon are pitch-perfect. Click image to expand.
Phoenix and Witherspoon are pitch perfect

The news that Joaquin Phoenix had been cast as Johnny Cash in the new biopic Walk the Line (Columbia) was a head-scratcher. Phoenix is a disconcertingly brilliant actor—subtle and true, the kind of performer who can make huge emotional leaps without calling attention to his acting. But Johnny Cash played by a slender, sharp-faced baritone? He seemed wrong physically and even more wrong vocally. How could that voice come out of that guy?

Well, there is a disconnect, but the performance is so spectacular that your brain will make the correction. Phoenix's scarred upper lip (he was born with it) actually evokes Cash on stage, the expression somewhere between sardonic and sneering but in the end, neither. He does all the singing himself, dropping his voice a couple of octaves and nailing Cash's cellar-dweller tone. On the lowest notes you get a bellows verging on a belch that doesn't quite have that Johnny Cash thrust. But I'm nitpicking. Even at his weakest, you close your eyes and hear Cash with a mild head cold.

If you're going to make a Johnny Cash biopic, you need to account for one thing above all: that indelible tension between self-disgust and resignation. That Man in Black thing: the height of cool, yet the mark of a soul in mourning. Those vocals: "steady like a train," says someone in the movie—yet charged with the fear of what Nick Lowe called "The Beast in Me" (a song that Cash sang with simple grace on his first Rick Rubin comeback album).

In spite of its standard biopic gaps and simplifications, Walk the Line gets the big things right. Directed by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) from a script credited to him and Gill Dennis, it dramatizes only the first and most tumultuous part of Cash's life—up to 1968, when he killed 'em at Folsom Prison and finally persuaded June Carter to tie the knot. The film actually opens at Folsom. Cash's band vamps while the singer waits offstage, pensively fingering the blade of a buzz saw—like the one that (cue flashback) killed his beloved older brother.

That's not a promising transition, but over the years Mangold has lightened his touch (his first film was, appropriately enough, Heavy), and besides: It's the pain on Phoenix's face that sells the moment. In scenes from Cash's childhood (when he was known as "J.R."), we see the source of his damaged psyche: a drunk and abusive father, played with typical, unshowy intensity by Robert Patrick, and that nurturing older brother (Lucas Till) whose death engenders both anguish and guilt. The loss permeates Phoenix's performance—and the film.

The first half of Walk the Line chronicles Cash's rise to stardom after working his way from gospel to rockabilly under the tutelage of Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). And along the way we get terrific impersonations of Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), and, of course, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon)—onstage, in the wings, and in the caravan on a Sun Records tour. You'd get your money's worth from that show!

The second half is Cash's descent into booze and speed and barbiturates—and a long, long downer it is. Fortunately, Witherspoon's Carter gives every scene a lift. She's marvelous showing Carter playing Carter, the sassy countrified caricature with the helium drawl: This is Witherspoon the gorgeous comedian getting inside the head of another gorgeous comedian and dazzling you with the artistry of both performers. And she sings up a storm, too. The surprise is her intensity when Carter is offstage. In a moving scene on bar stools, Cash parries her self-deprecation by confessing his long infatuation with her music, while Carter gently elicits his long-repressed grief about his brother. The exposition is woven into the drama, and the actors are so focused (Was Joaquin dredging up memories of his own lost brother?) that the movie loses what I call the "biopic spread"—the sense of filmmakers skipping along the surface of a life, from milestone to milestone, and never stopping for its subjects just to be.

Apart from a typical biopic groaner when Carter tells the wired, drunken Cash, "You cain't walk no line," the sins of the screenplay are ones of omission. Ginnifer Goodwin is very affecting as Cash's first wife, but the part is shaped to make her a drag on his high-flying artistry. Another gap: When Cash is busted for possession and his daddy says, "Now you won't have to work so hard to make people think you've been to jail," it would have been a great opportunity to explore what Cash's faux-jailbird persona meant to him. And the film makes very little of Carter's history of bad marriages. She seems so stable and wholesome around Cash: Was she just drawn to unwholesome, unstable men?