3 Stars – Thought-Provoking
Authentically presenting the life of a person on film is a difficult task. It is especially difficult with Johnny Cash. His complex personality was not only forged on the anvil of experiencing an abusive father but was also created by sharing his mother’s love for music to the extent that he knew every hymn sung in his mother’s church by the age of ten. The result was a troubled musician who wrote emotive songs which stroked the sorrow and pains of our lives. He was unable to find peace for himself until he returned to faith in God following his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. This struggle between destruction and salvation best describes his life as he tried to “Walk the Line.”
Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix as an adult and Ridge Canipe as a child, the film starts with the abuse of Cash by his alcoholic and cruel father, Ray (Robert Patrick). Similar to the experience of Ray Charles, Cash lost his favorite brother to an accident early in his life. The pain of this loss was exacerbated by his father’s cruelty when he told him that “the wrong boy died,” meaning that his father wished that Johnny had died instead of his brother.
This cruel experience of a father’s abuse was a driving force throughout Cash’s life. It was also the pain out of which Cash wrote the blues. This is often true. The depth of pain experienced in their lives is often reflected in the depth of genius in our writers, musicians and artists. Trying to find some way to redeem his soul, Cash unsuccessfully seeks his father’s praise throughout his rise to fame.
Having never experienced a loving marriage as a child in his parents’ home, it is no surprise that he does not know how to be a caring husband. When he must join the service during the Korean War, Cash talks his girlfriend of one month into marrying him. Vivian Cash (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a simple person who is not a match for the troubled complexity of her husband. Unwilling to join him in his musical career and unable to provide enough stability or strength to keep him sober and moral, Vivian is soon replaced emotionally and finally in marriage by June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon).
Having listened to June since he was a child and she was a child star, Cash pursues her throughout a rocky season in his life and she helps him get free from his drug addiction. It is then that June also takes him back to church where Cash begins his ministry to the troubled people he sings for in jails and prisons, including his famous life recording in Folsom Prison.
Though the film does not adequately display his Christian faith, it does show how his life was changed and that this troubled man used his inner struggles to minister to those who also had such damage in their own lives. It is this message that makes this man in black a truly memorable person.
- When Johnny’s older brother Tommy (Cody Hanford) protects him from his father’s abuse, we discover that Tommy intends to become a minister and is memorizing the Bible. When he dies and leaves Johnny to face his father’s anger alone, the abandonment is penetrating. Have you ever experienced such a loss? Who did you lose and how did their leaving impact you?
- The inability of Johnny to find his way without June’s help is often true of people caught in an addiction. What do you think would have happened if Vivian had been willing to fight for Johnny and require him to live a healthy and holy life?
- The thirty-seven years that Johnny and June Carter Cash had together was a testimony of how a life can be changed. Why do you think the film did not portray in more extensive detail their Christian faith and foundation? Was what was shown adequate?
- Johnny’s desire to gain his father’s approval and inability to do so culminates in the moment when June steps in and helps him get free from drugs. What do you think would have happened to Johnny if June and her parents had not helped him?