A Phoenix in the Ring of Fire

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The Man in Black: that simple phrase, applied to the look and sound of the man it described, contained the heaven-and-hell contradictions in the personality of Johnny Cash. He could be a backwoods minister, warning of the Apocalypse in an Old Testament voice, or Satan himself, smiling sourly at the world's capacity for hurting itself.

Whether he was both of these characters, or neither, Cash brought the outlaw presence to pop music. The authenticity in his quavering baritone attested to a life of bitter experience. In those ballads of hard traveling, careless love and felonious assault, the words he sang were places he'd been, got hurt in and learned from. That startling line in “Folsom Prison Blues” — “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” — is followed by “When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry.” First the bad-man boast, then the sinner's remorse.

And, finally, the born-again vindication. James Mangold's mostly excellent Walk the Line is designed as a Christian epic. In this particular it diverges from last year's exemplary musical bio-pic, Ray, which depicted Ray Charles as a roiling spirit who conquered his demons on his own. This movie's Johnny Cash — in a scary-good turn by Joaquin Phoenix — is a haunted man who is redeemed by a good woman, June Carter.

The young Cash was such a huge and instructively troubled figure that, in any movie about him, other characters are inevitably supporting. That's the case with Walk the Line, even though it means to trace the growing love story that snuck up on him and June Carter, princess of the singing Carter Family. Carter was Cash's polar opposite: sun to his shadow, a pixie to his wraith, as chatty as he was withdrawn, a natural comic at home in the limelight — whereas he seemed to have been dragged on stage to testify to the crimes and heartbreaks in his songs. (As she well knew, having co-written “Ring of Fire” for Cash.) Reese Witherspoon captures Carter's raised-in-showbiz canniness, and with it a woman's no-nonsense resolve to get her man suited up for salvation.

Witherspoon has been pinwheeling this spunky charm for ages. Phoenix's triumph is even more substantial. Though his singing voice (he and Witherspoon do their own vocals) can't approach Cash in its lonesome depths, he has the gift of finding a home in this troubled mind, of moving in and living there. When he stands before an audience, unleashes the dread Cash stare and holds his guitar like a machine gun, you wonder if he's going to open fire on the crowd or himself. If Witherspoon has the gift of residing in her character, of moving in and living there, Phoenix seems voluntarily consigned to the Folsom Prison of Johnny's darkness.

A lot of credit for Phoenix's performance has to go to Mangold, who has always been good at finding the bleak melodrama in taciturn souls: Pruitt Taylor Vince's short-order cook in Heavy, Sly Stallone's tired sheriff in Cop Land. If Mangold's new movie has a problem, it's that he and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis sometimes walk the lines of the inspirational biography too rigorously. John's father, Ray Cash (Robert Patrick), is a one-note ogre who blames John for surviving his more adored younger brother, and whose condemnation of the singer lasts way longer than is dramatically necessary.

John's first wife Vivien (Ginnifer Goodwin) — “a wonderful lady” who “went through a lot of hell with him,” in the recollection of Cash's buddy and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones — is reduced to a small-minded sort with selfish middle-class dreams. “My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career,” Vivien and John's daughter Kathy Cash told AP this week. “That's not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home.” The screenwriters probably didn't mean to demean her; they just needed to show a failed marriage before the perfect one comes along. The rules of movie romance forbid a hero from having two true loves.

But the subsidiary conventions finally don't matter. This is a solo dirge that becomes a love-song duet. And as such it's as down-home and true as the image of John and June singing their hearts out for their fans and themselves — a destiny to which she was born, and he was fated.