ⓘ Walk the Line

Walk the Line

ⓘ Walk the Line

Walk the Line is a 2005 American biographical musical romantic drama film directed by James Mangold. The screenplay, written by Mangold and Gill Dennis, is based on two autobiographies authored by singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, 1975s Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words and 1997s Cash: The Autobiography. The film follows Cashs early life, his romance with June Carter, and his ascent in the country music scene. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, Reese Witherspoon as Carter, Ginnifer Goodwin as Cashs first wife Vivian Liberto, and Robert Patrick as Cashs father.

Walk the Line previewed at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4, 2005, and went into wide release on November 18. The film was nominated for five Oscars at the 78th Academy Awards, including Best Actor Phoenix, Best Actress Witherspoon, which she won, and Best Costume Design Arianne Phillips. The film grossed more than $186 million worldwide.


1. Plot

In 1968, as an audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison cheer for Johnny Cash, he waits backstage near a table saw, reminding him of his early life.

In 1944, 12-year-old Johnny is raised on a cotton farm in Dyess, Arkansas with his brother Jack, father Ray, and mother Carrie. One day, Jack is killed in a sawmill accident while Johnny is out fishing; Ray blames Johnny for Jack’s death, saying that the Devil" took the wrong son”.

In 1950, Johnny enlists in the Air Force and is stationed in West Germany. He purchases a guitar, and in 1952, finds solace in writing songs, one of which he develops as "Folsom Prison Blues".

After his discharge, Cash returns to the United States and marries his girlfriend, Vivian Liberto. The couple moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where Cash works as a door-to-door salesman to support his growing family. He walks past a recording studio, which inspires him to organize a band to play gospel music. Cashs band auditions for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. Phillips signs them after they play "Folsom Prison Blues", and the band begins touring as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, alongside fellow rising stars Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

On tour, Johnny meets June Carter, with whom he falls in love. They become friends, but June gently rebuffs his attempts to woo her. As Johnny’s fame grows, he starts abusing drugs and alcohol.

Over Vivians objections, Johnny persuades June to go tour with him. The tour is a success, but backstage, Vivian becomes critical of Junes influence. After one performance in Las Vegas, Johnny and June sleep together. The next morning, she notices Johnny taking pills, and doubts her choices. At that evenings concert, Johnny, upset by Junes apparent rejection, behaves erratically and eventually passes out on stage. June disposes of Johnnys drugs, and begins to write "Ring of Fire", describing her feelings for him and her pain at watching him descend into addiction.

Returning to California, Johnny travels to Mexico to purchase more drugs and is arrested. Johnny’s marriage to Vivian implodes; they divorce and he moves to Nashville in 1966. Trying to reconcile with June, Johnny purchases a large house near a lake in Hendersonville. His parents and the extended Carter family arrive for Thanksgiving, at which time Ray and an intoxicated Johnny get into a bitter argument. After the meal, Junes mother encourages her daughter to help Cash. He goes into detox and wakes with June; she says they have been given a second chance. They begin a tentative relationship, but June rebuffs his marriage proposals.

Johnny discovers that most of his fan mail is from prisoners. He proposes to sceptical Columbia Records executives that he will record an album live inside Folsom Prison. The performance is a success, and Johnny embarks on a tour with June and his band. He later performs "Ring of Fire" on stage. After the song, Cash invites June to a duet and stops in the middle, saying he cannot sing "Jackson" any more unless June agrees to marry him. June accepts and they share a passionate embrace on stage. Johnny and his father reconciled their relationship.


2. Development and pre-production

The film has its origins in a 1993 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. That year, Cash was a guest star on the show, where he and June Carter became friends with Jane Seymour, the star of the show, and Seymours husband James Keach who was directing the episode. By the mid-1990s, Cash had asked Keach to make a film of his life; he and Seymour began the process with a series of interviews. In 1997, the interviews had been the basis of a screenplay written by Gill Dennis, with input from Keach; two years later, still lacking any studio interest, Keach contacted James Mangold, who had been "angling to become involved in the project for two years." Mangold and his wife, producer Cathy Konrad, developed the script for Sony, and by 2001, they had a script they thought they could pitch to a studio. Sony and others turned it down, but Fox 2000 agreed to make the film.

The film was in part based on two autobiographies, both of which were optioned: Man in Black 1975 and Cash: The Autobiography 1997, though the film "burrows deep into painful territory that Mr. Cash barely explored."

Phoenix met Cash months before hearing about the film. When Phoenix read the script, he felt there were at least ten other actors who would be better in the role. All of Cashs vocal tracks in the film and on the accompanying soundtrack are played and sung by Phoenix. To prepare for her role as June Carter, Witherspoon studied videos of the singer; she also listened to her singing and telling stories to get her voice right.


3.1. Release Box office

Walk the Line was released on November 18, 2005, in 2.961 theaters, grossing $22.3 million on its opening weekend. It went on to earn $119.5 million in North America and $66.9 million in the rest of the world for a total of $186.4 million, well above its $28 million budget, making it a box office success. It was the all-time highest grossing music biopic until Straight Outta Compton surpassed it in 2015.


3.2. Release Reception

Critics generally responded with positive reviews, garnering an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. The two lead performances received rave reviews, particularly Witherspoons, whose performance is described by critics as her best work to date. Roger Ebert praised Witherspoon for her "boundless energy" and predicted her to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, "Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do first-rate work - they sing, they twang, they play new-to-them instruments, they crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat its a wonder they dont burst into flames".

A. O. Scott, in his review for The New York Times, had problems with Phoenixs performance: "Even though his singing voice doesnt match the original - how could it? - he is most convincing in concert, when his shoulders tighten and he cocks his head to one side. Otherwise, he seems stuck in the kind of off-the-rack psychological straitjacket in which Hollywood likes to confine troubled geniuses". In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, "A lot of credit for Phoenixs performance has to go to Mangold, who has always been good at finding the bleak melodrama in taciturn souls. If Mangolds new movie has a problem, its that he and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis sometimes walk the lines of the inspirational biography too rigorously".

Andrew Sarris, in his review for The New York Observer praised Witherspoon for her "spine-tingling feistiness", and wrote, "This feat has belatedly placed it in my mind, at least among a mere handful of more-than-Oscar-worthy performances this year". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "while Witherspoon, a fine singer herself, makes Carter immensely likable, a fountain of warmth and cheer, given how sweetly she meshes with Phoenix her romantic reticence isnt really filled in". Baltimore Sun reviewer Michael Sragow wrote, "What Phoenix and Witherspoon accomplish in this movie is transcendent. They act with every bone and inch of flesh and facial plane, and each tone and waver of their voice. They do their own singing with a startling mastery of country musics narrative musicianship". In his review for Sight and Sound, Mark Kermode wrote, "Standing ovations, too, for Witherspoon, who has perhaps the tougher task of lending depth and darkness to the role of June, whose frighteningly chipper stage act - a musical-comedy hybrid - constantly courts but never marries mockery".

Some critics found the film too constrained by Hollywood plot formulas of love and loss, ignoring the last twenty years of Cashs life and other more socio-politically controversial reasons he was considered "the man in black".

Rosanne Cash was critical of the film. She was upset "because it had the three most damaging events of were not recognizable to me as my parents in any way. But the scenes were recognizable, and the storyline, so the whole thing was fraught with sadness because they all had just died, and I had this resistance to seeing the screen version of my childhood".


3.3. Release Accolades

Witherspoons performance was repeatedly recognized, including an Academy Award for Best Actress and other awards such as:

  • National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Actress
  • Online Film Critics Society award as Best Actress
  • Broadcast Film Critic Award as Best Actress
  • BAFTA Award as Best Actress
  • Golden Globe Award as Best Actress – Musical or Comedy
  • Screen Actors Guild Award as Best Actress
  • Satellite Award as Best Actress – Musical or Comedy

Film critic Andrew Sarris ranked Walk the Line number seven in top films of 2005 and cited Reese Witherspoon as the best female performance of the year. Witherspoon was also voted Favorite Leading Lady at the 2006 Peoples Choice Awards. David Ansen of Newsweek ranked Witherspoon as one of the five best actresses of 2005.


4. Home media

On February 28, 2006, a single-disc DVD and a two-disc collector edition DVD were released; these editions sold three million copies on their first day of release. On March 25, 2008, a two-disc extended cut DVD was released for region one. The feature on disc one is 17 minutes longer than the theatrical release, and disc two features eight extended musical sequences with introductions and documentaries about the making of the film. The film has been released on Blu-ray Disc in France, Sweden and the UK in the form of its extended cut. The American Blu-ray features the shorter theatrical cut.


5. Soundtrack

Wind-up Records released the soundtrack in November 2005. It featured nine songs performed by Joaquin Phoenix, four songs by Reese Witherspoon, two songs by Tyler Hilton, and one song each by Waylon Payne, Johnathan Rice, and Shooter Jennings. The album received a Grammy at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Pictures, Television or Other Visual Media.