An immense stone fortress set in shallow hills of scrub...
A dry wind howls.
A metal sign swings to and fro.
Folsom. Creak. State Prison.
Beyond the gate, beyond the walls, the yard is deserted.
A crow picks at a can.
Suddenly, the bird turns, hearing a beat coming from the fortress.
And the beat rises as we cut inside...
But the cell block is empty - no prisoners.
And the beat rises.
And the beat gets louder.
And we hear the whoops and hollers of men...
So it begins. Director James Mangold's commentary ditches the standard chummy self-intro for a hushed reading of the shooting-script. Like the opening scenes it voices over, it's an instant gripper. Tease from sleaze. Whispers of magic bristling beneath the mundane. What kind of anti-hero would such a jagged bunch of outcasts bay for? Surely not this slicked-back moper idly twanging a buzz-saw blade...
Johnny Cash was a man with a river of shadows sloshing around inside of him - and, like so many great artists driven by a dark and rare muse, it informed his work as it slowly drowned him. His story is tragic, twisted, destructive, pioneering, peerless and littered with biopic-defying contradictions and dead-ends. Concentrate on the music and you end up with a niche movie for fanboys. Play up the performer and you risk a Ray-style flatline of love him/ loathe him smuggery. Fawningly try to suck up the entire A-Z story and you sideline the songs as clunky punctuation.
Mangold solves it by zooming in on the most vivid snapshot - Cash's rise from discovery by Memphis mogul Sam Phillips, up to Folsom, bookended by the childhood heartbreak of his brother's death and the sealing of his tortured courtship of fellow crooner June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). He steers the story with a steady, unflashy hand, never letting actors patronisingly signpost who they are or how they function along the timeline (spotting lookylikes of Elvis, Jerry- Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison is a cute sideline).
The songs soundtrack the drama in a new, delicious sense, with Phoenix and Witherspoon's performances just as important to their characters' progression as they are to the delivery of the music itself. Every one's a cynic-winner: irony-heavy double-ups on 'Time's A-Wastin' and 'It Ain't Me, Babe'; the rockabilly rut of 'Get Rhythm'; Witherspoon's fragile, autoharp-strummed 'Ring Of Fire'...
Witherspoon nails Carter as a spritely, sun-tickled puppy-dog with the soul of a poet: she can polish her Oscar with pride. It's just a shame 'Wock' (Phoenix) didn't complete the double for his career-high channelling of the man, the myth, the voice. Check out the breath-catching debut of 'Folsom Prison Blues' and Phoenix's amazing physical and emotional shapeshift, as he morphs a door-to-door salesman into the Man In Black ("I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die...").
By opening with the Folsom gig, Mangold bears his Cash chops proudly. While the '60s swung away out in the free world, Cash turned his burly old back on the festivals and travelled to the heart of American darkness; the place where his motherland stowed its most venal rejects. (Still, when he encouraged mockery of the warden, few joined in. As an ex-inmate comments on the Folsom doc, "We were stuck in there with him. Johnny got to go home!").
Other extras range from understandably deleted scenes to US TV promos featuring the gushings of earnest men with big grey hair. But Mangold's hushed yak-track is a treasure. He's like the articulate music teacher you wish you'd had, noting how the sound of Cash and his contemporaries came from the textures of '50s Memphis (whirring crickets, train track clickety-clacks, the slap of shine-rag on shoe).
Walk The Line is about, as Mangold puts it, "how a man can get a second chance, even when he feels he's messed everything up." And Cash messes up good. He loves his wife and kids, but seduces June through the thing he can't indulge in at home: music. He craves downtime, but drifts into a speed habit to keep step with the performing schedule...
And, for all the fashionably tortured image, Mangold is sharp enough to tackle the purest truth at the heart of Cash's sadness - the loss of his beloved brother. His fascination with the playful but sturdy June is billed as pining for - as both Cash and father saw it - his better half.
In their last conversation, Mangold asked the singer what his favourite film was. "He said it was Frankenstein. Because the monster was made up of 'bad parts'. Johnny felt his brother was made of nothing but good. It's what informed his life and work - trying to reclaim the good parts."