Directed by:James Mangold
The life of singer Johnny Cash contains enough material any number of movies, but this reverential summary of his boyhood and early career won't whet your appetite for more; as conceived by writer/director James Mangold, (Identity, Girl Interrupted) and inscrutably enacted by the capable Joaquin Phoenix, (The Village, Gladiator) Cash comes off as a cipher, little more than a studiously concocted set of personal mannerisms. Mere impersonation is not a fair substitute for genuine interpretation.
Mangold based his screenplay on two books about the man who gave country music hits like "I Walk The Line" and "Ring of Fire" as well as that electrifying album recorded live before the convicts at Folsom Prison, but the director never manages to get below the level of simple narrative into the motivations of his subject. The son of a hard drinking and abusive Arkansas sharecropper, Cash worshiped an older brother who died tragically in an industrial accident when the boys were adolescents. Estrangement from his father, a stint in the army and an impulsive marriage to a childhood sweetheart all preceded the singer's initial audition in Memphis with Sam Phillips, the legendary record producer instrumental in identifying emerging talents like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who along with Cash infused elements of gospel, rhythm & blues and rockabilly into the traditional sound of country music. Popular music in the 1950's exploded in such unexpected ways; the hits of 1959 bear little resemble to those of a decade earlier. Cash was a crucial ingredient in that fascinatingly turbulent mix, but Mangold chooses to view his subject from a single point of view, his tempestuous relationship with June Carter, member of the famous country music family that was the closest thing to royalty that art form ever produced.
Carter ultimately became the steadying influence that allowed Cash to earn his status a cultural icon, but not before the two spent years emotionally jousting with each other as they toured and performed together. Cash's persistent drug use, booze and their respective spouses were the principal contributors to this lengthy courtship, but the director subsumes all that into the singer's unrequited passion for his unattainable co-star. That, according to Mangold, caused the bulk of Cash's destructive, self-absorbed behavior. If only she'd succumbed earlier, the director argues, Cash would have been spared so much torment.
Thus armed with a severely narrowed focus and a script which substitutes darkly inarticulate rumination for penetrating character analysis, Mangold commits the ultimate mistake; he uses his lead's singing voice instead of Cash's own. Since the husky gravel intonations everything from "I've Been Everywhere" to "Get Rhythm" are so inextricably bound up with the impact of Cash's music, Phoenix labors, without success, to do it justice. In the end, his performance comes off as no more credible than those provided by the actors which the director corralled to portray Presley, Lewis and Waylon Jennings--each looks like an entrant in a Las Vegas amateur "look alike" contest.
On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon, (Vanity Fair, Legally Blond 1 &2) whose wholesome perkiness can occasionally set one's teeth on edge, brings June Carter to life with such appealing verve that her co-star's more showy performance suffers by comparison. With a relaxed manner and just the right dose of stubborn determination, Witherspoon brings a level of credibility to her performance that Phoenix simply cannot match. As Cash's father, veteran character Robert Patrick, (Terminator 2's remorseless, amoral robot) combines accurate southern inflection with devastating scorn to create a portrait of an authority figure that could easily poison anyone's self esteem while Sandra Ellis Lafferty's quiet dignity nicely hints at those qualities which made "Mother" Maybelle Carter the matriarch of her famous family.
Mangold loads his film with period details that convey a solid sense of time and place, but he squanders the talents of Phoenix in portraying a career inarticulately unraveling without sufficiently examined cause. The impressive work of Witherspoon notwithstanding, this well-intentioned tribute to Cash lacks the excitement and driving power of his music.
The verdict? "The Man In Black" deserves better.
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