Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Walk the Line (James Mangold)

'The Man in Black'.

"Walk the Line" is, without a doubt, one of those typical biopics that follow the 'redemption' dramatic formula as its narrative pattern. But armed with top-notch performances by Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, the film achieved to be more than just another 'biopic' film. Of course it is strictly about Cash's initial rise, self-destructive fall and rise again as a musical icon, but it's also a subtly observant film that focuses about these two people's unorthodox human connection and the greatness of a slow-moving love.

Notice how in many films that tread the 'redemption' process as what I've mentioned above, the people to which the biopic is specifically center-weighted for typically goes through rushed marriages and easy romances with their better halves(see "People vs. Larry Flynt" and the classic "Raging Bull"), only bringing about problems on the way. "Walk the Line" (and Cash's romantic life) expresses utmost differentiation.

Sure, Johnny Cash's marriage with Vivian (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) was tackled in a fairly quick exposition, but with the film mainly about Cash's fascinating emotional exploits with June more than it is about his emotional and domestic problems with his initial wife, "Walk the Line", with a refreshingly patient direction by James Mangold, treated this Cash-Carter bond as a slow-burning fire. Fire that is occasionally being blown off by the wind, but still strives on with its flame.

Trickier as it may look to pull that extra-marital vibe off, the idea of being 'tricky' does not start there. It starts within the internalization of the actors themselves. James Mangold once mentioned in the "Becoming Cash/Becoming Carter" featurette that he is not concerned about whether or not Joaquin Phoenix would properly impersonate and emulate Cash's distinct gestures and facial expressions. What's important to him is the 'interpretation'. He is indeed more than correct.

I have seen images of the real Johnny Cash and trust me, aside from the slicked back hair, the facial structure of Cash and Phoenix are far from even being remotely similar. But guess what? Phoenix, for how much time he stayed on-screen, embodied the destructively alienating, non-conformist nature of the 'Man in Black', complete with powerful facial translations of a constantly self-debilitating internal conflict.

Phoenix, with a uniquely quiet intensity that is only his own, is such an inspired casting choice. Mangold could have gone for leading actors better-suited for the marquees but he chose not to. Besides, as what I've seen in his visual and dramatic treatment for "Walk the Line", the film is never made to be the usual Hollywood biographical offering. Aside from the common elements such as the non-linear opening scene, the childhood flashback and the aforementioned 'redemption' format, it's very different in context.

Sure, Cash came back, sober and all, to the music that he himself has nurtured and many people have since came to love with a better sense of inner peace. For some 'biopic'-fleshed main characters, coming back into a once abandoned limelight means going through a process of physical and mental self-improvement. A 'process' so honey-glazed that it seems too tiring and one-dimensional.

Cash, on the other hand, came back, black-clad, a slicked back hair and a voice colder than the night than it ever was before, to record live inside a maximum security prison while ridiculing its warden and critiquing its yellowish drinking water in the process. Talk about stern anti-authoritarian stance and a pair of steel cojones.

"Behind every great man is a great woman". That quote perfectly fits within "Walk the Line's" 'great love conquers all' theme, but I think it's better to rephrase that as "Beside every great man is a great woman". Johnny and June duet, don't they?


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