A solid and entertaining biopic, Walk the Line works less as a movie than an actors’ showcase for its stars. Joaquin Phoenix’s total immersion into the skin of singer Johnny Cash is startling–watching it, you can’t believe this is the same guy who whined about being ”vexed” in Gladiator. As he evolves from a farm boy to gospel croonin’ plunker to the Man in Black, Phoenix disappears into Cash’s deep baritone, his way of slinging the guitar onto his back, and his hunched-up style of strumming. But it’s more than just picking up mannerisms: Phoenix also sings as Johnny Cash, and it’s quite impressive.
The story of how Johnny Cash became Johnny Cash traces from his childhood under a distant father (Robert Patrick) to his early attempts at a music career, during which he married his girlfriend Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin). During a tour with the likes of Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), he encounters singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and his love for her–and her rejection of him through the years–spurs him into drugs, drinking, and depression. As with most movies based on real-life singers, as his popularity grows, the women come a-flockin’, and the childhood demons surface. Witherspoon, who matches Phoenix drawl for drawl, plays June both as a sassy spitfire whose charm breaks your heart, and as a sympathetic friend who tries to help Cash get over–well, her. The love story is what endures, but the movie comes most alive during its musical numbers, and even if you’re not a country fan, it may just get you to run out and buy a Johnny Cash album.–Ellen A. Kim