Movie Review: Walk The Line (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

Portrait of the Man in Black

by Jill Dowdy

Walk the Line is rated PG-13 and contains explicit depictions of drug and alcohol abuse and infidelity that are part of the redemption story of Johnny Cash’s life, but you ought to be aware of these elements in making a decision about attending the movie or taking a pre-teen or teenager.

Walk the Line opens outside Folsom prison. Cash’s music is steadily thumping along with stomping of the prisoners. The shot settles on a black bird, then we are taken inside the prison to see Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) glancing down at a circular saw blade. He thumbs at the blade while the prisoners cheer in the background, awaiting their hero’s return to the stage. We’re taken back to his childhood and a different saw.

The film has a powerful wraparound of Cash’s childhood and disturbing relationship with his father. Cash and his older brother, Jack, are lying awake at night in their home in Dyess, Arkansas, talking as siblings do. Johnny asks, “How come you’re so good?” Jack laughs it off but recognizes his baby brother’s gifts. Cash is aware of his spiritual imperfections that are soon compounded by tragedy.

In the next scene, we discover why Cash is thumbing the blade at Folsom. Jack cuts himself while working in a saw mill. Young J.R. (Cash’s childhood nickname) had wanted to stay and help in the mill, but Jack tells him to go on to the fishing hole. As J.R. walks home from fishing, his father speeds up in the truck and screams, “Where have you been?!” He takes J.R. to his brother’s side, where he sits beside his beloved brother as he dies. He feels responsible for the death of the “good brother” in the family. If he had stayed with his brother, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Could he have prevented his brother’s death?

All questions to haunt a child not needing another reason to feel unworthy. The strained relationship with his father compounds the problem when his father assures J.R. that indeed the wrong son died. The events set us on a journey of insights into the angst that made Johnny Cash so compelling and so complicated; a kindred to many. As one of those kindred, I find myself reaching for my second tissue about twenty minutes into the film. I know I am in trouble.

Later in life, Cash wore black like a scarlet letter signifying his pain, wrongs, rebellion, and rage. “You can’t wear all black, you look like your going to a funeral,” says Vivian, Cash’s first wife (Ginnifer Goodwin).

“Maybe I am.” Cash answers.

This exchange takes place twice in the film, the second time with a record producer. It is, I think, very deliberately included in the film as Cash lives boldly and passionately, knowing the death of someone or something may be just around the corner. And many times it did.

I often wonder why some of us seem to be so aware so early of our flaws. For some of us, it sets us upon a life of self-destructive behavior. For others, it is a path of searching and creating to relieve their pain and maintain their sanity. For most it is a swinging pendulum from one to the other. This is accurate of Cash. Johnny Cash seems to be an icon of the spiritually flawed and damaged while remaining spiritually devoted. The film portrays many events that created the man who was Johnny Cash, and yet it is ultimately a redemptive love story.

Walk The LineJune Carter (Reese Witherspoon) entered Cash’s life via radio when he was a boy. Carter sang with her famous family on the Grand Ole Opry. Years later their meeting and subsequent relationship is one of the major threads in Walk the Line. Yet what makes the movie shine is that it holds together several threads of meaningful plot, including Cash’s music career, his angst about his brother’s death, his relationship with his father, his drug and alcohol abuse.

The story – though to make the movie Cash himself consulted heavily with writers, directors, and producers as early as 1998 – is not whitewashed. It includes all of the details of attraction and infidelity that will remind some of very painful wrongs done to them or done by them. June’s faith remains strong as she lets down her family and children and becomes an object of scorn to many religious people. We are let inside the searching of June, who travels with a bag of books while on tour, such as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.

The man in black did not scare her off, rather, she found herself drawn in by him, yet she refuses his repeated and premature proposals and advances because of her own shame and later because of his substance abuse and lifestyle. “I’m goin’ down, down, down in a burnin’ ring of fire” she wrote as she tries, perhaps, to express the conflicted feelings for Cash.

A turning point in the film comes after Cash’s anger erupts and Vivian leaves with the girls crying and Cash running after their car. He buys a place near Nashville and claims to have his life back together, but June doesn’t believe it, and she’s right. Dealers continue to bring illicit drugs and Cash is still using.

Meanwhile, Cash proposes again to June, and she wants to believe in him but realizes he needs help. Her erstwhile judging family (about the divorce), is now portrayed as grace-filled and supportive, urging June to “go to him,” at a time when he is most hurt by the past, his father’s derision. June is watching as Cash tries to get his tractor (and his life) out of the mud. The tractor rolls into the lake and when June pulls him out, a new life begins. June and her parents stay with Cash until he is dry, and they meet his drug dealer with a shotgun.

Walk The LineJune and Johnny found something in each other that, though a sordid and sinful path, was undeniably redemptive. They understood what it was like to cross the line that you never thought you’d cross—that line that seems to be the point of no return. For those of us have these lines of our own (see sidebar for more of Jill Dowdy’s story), our own Babylonian exile, we know why they clung to Christ so tightly. This faith, in spite of their scars, rang so true that it did and still does have a powerful effect on non-believers that hear their story—the doubting Thomases of the world looking for scars.

The themes of loss and salvation, longing, and rebellion in Walk the Line point to the power of walking the razor edge between disaster and redemption. Tears flowed as I watched the story of Cash causing and receiving damage in his life, and I cannot help thinking of my own damage. The film does not spare us the hurt Cash’s sin caused to those he loved most, nor his self-inflicted hurt.

It does not spare us the damage done by those who were meant to love him most. As I reflected on the film, I found myself inspired by the greater glory for God that can come out of the uglier truths of our life. How the one who created light from darkness in the beginning can do the same by transforming external and internal wearers of black and using it all with more power than we could have ever imagined.

It takes courage to walk in the truth of who we really are, revealing the things we have been. But maybe that is exactly what some lost soul is looking for to lead him or her to truth. Walk the Line gave me strength and conviction to expose the “man in black” that resides within me, within us all.New Wineskins

Unable To Walk The Line: My Story
As a teen I was obsessed with wearing black. Sure, it’s cool, but for those with wounds and damage it represents more. For Cash, wearing black made him an icon to some and an iconoclast to others. The tormented inner life he expressed with black is the same as the modern day wounded with their piercings and tattoos outwardly show their pain and marginalization from society. Others, like June Carter, the wounds are more concealed.

This was a multiple tissue movie for me because it does what good films do. As we lose ourselves in the experience, the hurt places we have hidden in our own hearts are awakened. Cash’s revealing of these things was more powerful to the masses than any portrayal of perfection would have ever been. The hurts that drove him from numbing the pain to finding redemption is all too familiar to me for many reasons.

Cash seems to have been born with an innate understanding of his spiritual flaws. This awareness in contrast to a “good” brother is magnified. Add guilt to this equation and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

This early awareness of spiritual flaws is why I feel a kinship with Cash. Growing up in a devoted religious family, I was a “black sheep” of sorts never feeling the same as those around me seemed to feel. Pretending to be good never penetrated the surface.

An experimental drug user in high school, I was exercising a rebellion that seemed an obvious path. After being caught, I was “outed” as a drug user to my church leadership (an elder’s daughter, no less) and youth group at sixteen. Immediately the differences I felt inside were splattered all over me as I became the girl you didn’t want your kid hanging out with. The humiliation and hurt over this paired with my own stubbornness propelled me into more drug use, rather than being a deterrent. Somewhere in that still small place I had believed in the grace and mercy of Jesus. That flame was smothered by the intentions of the well-meaning Christians, and I figured I might as well party.

Upon graduation, as I made my way to a Christian university, I really hoped for fresh start. God knows how hard I tried, but an emerging time of depression paired with weakness I found myself using again. Coke, crystal, and ectasy—these seemed easier than devos and church with those who looked so “good.” This continued until the evil that accompanies the drug scene and the necessary increase of usage to keep the emotions numb came to a head.

Strung out and alone at three a.m., I looked in the mirror at a very thin, very scary version of myself. I was terrified of what I had become. I cried and shook in my bed trying to remember the truths of my youth. The words of the church camp song, “Show me the Way, Show me the way, the way to go home” were in my brain and heart. I prayed that God would hear me, having been taught He does not hear the prayers of the unfaithful. I prayed for help and strength to get me out.

The next day I packed my car and drove home, never to return.

Jill DowdyJill Dowdy lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her husband, Jeff, and their two children. They recently returned to the States after living in Athens, Greece for five years where Jeff worked as a diplomatic liaison for the FBI in Lebanon, Syria, and the Balkans. They are currently readjusting to life in America. E-mail her at [jilldowdy@bellsouth.net]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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