The Red Right Hand

Love Is A Burning Thing

James Mangold
Joaquin Phoenix
Reese Witherspoon
Robert Patrick
Ginnifer Goodwin

Ah, Oscar season. The Christmas blockbusters are fading away, to be replaced with powerful moving dramas. Usually I'm somewhat unimpressed with the line-up but this year has produced many real gems. 'Walk The Line' is the last big contender, up for national release next week. Allegedly, producers spent four years trying to obtain the rights and another four before pre-production began. It's also been said that Johnny Cash picked Joaquin Phoenix for the main role, even though he had very little musical background and had to learn to play guitar from scratch.

The film opens in the late sixties, Folsom Prison, California; as the cameras pan the empty yards, a low bass beat emanates from the thick prison walls. The guards begin to fluster as the crowds become riled by the continuous beat. Looks are shared between the inmates (clapping and cheering), the band (unsure what to expect from their audience) and the guards (anxiously anticipating a possible riot if Cash doesn't appear soon). In the wood shop, at the rear of the stage, a man in all black is sitting next to a mounted buzz saw, slowly turning the blade. As his eyes begin to glaze, the warden's voice calls out to him, "Mr. Cash?" We're then treated to a full history of Cash's life up to the moment he recorded his best-selling live album, 'At Folsom Prison: Live.' From his early childhood we come to realise that JR Cash was a dreamer, whereas his brother, Jack, studied the bible closely - it seemed destined that he was to become a preacher. Following a similar plot to last year's hit, Ray, Cash is blamed for the death of his brother - a memory which continually haunts him. Very little is shown of Cash's childhood. We are shown a scene, based shortly after Jack's death, in which Cash's father [Ray, Robert Patrick] comes home drunk and blames him for the lack of money in the house. JR runs to his room, jumps on his bed and with tightly shut eyes frantically whispers to his brother, begging Jack not to leave him. Jump ahead ten years and JR is still lying on his bed, now waiting for a bus which will take him off to the air force and to Germany. As he leaves it's obvious that he hasn't made amends with his father and is somewhat distanced from the family in general.

As with most biographies, a lot of information is dropped to save time. This is demonstrated in the opening half an hour with various leaps in time, '44 to '51 then '53, etc - with key moments that will contribute to Cash's personality later in life. Once we reach the mid-fifties, things seem to slow down, then remain static in 1955-56 for a considerable amount of time. Cash marries his girlfriend (whom he dated for two months before going off to the air force) and has a daughter - Roseanne. Deciding the home of modern music is Memphis, Cash relocates and desperately attempts to launch his band (two mechanics and himself, a door-to-door salesman). Cash's band eventually gets signed and touring begins. From the very beginning of the tour, it's clear that Cash's wife, Vivian [Goodwin], doesn't approve of his music - more the effect it has on him; coming home, sitting in a darkened room for days on end.  Names are dropped left, right and centre: Jerry-Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, but the most important name is June Carter [Witherspoon]. Carter had reached a lull in her career at the moment she met Cash but he managed to persuade her to sing more on the tour - which eventually lead to her becoming a regular act at the Vegas-staged 'Johnny Cash Show.' The more time Cash spends on tour, the more disconnected he becomes. Soon, drugs and his infatuation for Carter get the better of him and he starts on a long road of personal stress and suffering. Phoenix has done an amazing job, portraying the recently departed singer in a light most people really weren't aware of. When I mentioned the film I was going to see a lot of people simply assumed it would be about his love for Jesus, that the whole thing would have a preachy feeling. Feeling robbed and hollow, constantly put down by his father, Cash feels nothing but bitter resentment. He loves God and gets very offended when a music producer implies that he doesn't but it would seem that living the life that he has, Cash has become unhappy with the cards dealt.

This film is about Johnny Cash's life with his family, his love for June, the relationship with his father & God and the drugs that nearly destroyed him. Actually, scratch that; the final scenes in Folsom Prison remind us that this is a film about the music and the affect it has had on people over the years. Acted with seemingly perfect accuracy and gracefully told by a dark horse director, James Mangold (responsible for Identity and Girl, Interrupted... but we won't mention Kate & Leopold or Cop Land, it would just be better to leave those well alone).

Release Date:
3rd February 2006

The Scene To Look Out For:
Following a show Cash is loaded on drugs, feeling frustrated that Carter wants nothing to do with him. In the blink of an eye he flips out and begins tearing up the dressing room. At one point Phoenix tears the sink off the wall and throws it at the mirror - completely unscripted. As he calms slightly, searching the ground for a pill, Cash sits in the mess he's created, as if it never happened. This is a perfect example of the intensity that carries throughout the movie.

Notable Characters:
Phoenix IS Cash! Acted superbly, showing the audience a side to Johnny Cash that many would never have known or realised. Could this be Phoenix's Oscar-winning performance?

Highlighted Quote:
"God said not to touch the apple. He didn't say have a nibble, He didn't say touch it every once in a while! He said "Don't. Touch. It." Don't think about touchin' it, don't sing about touchin' it, don't think about singing about touchin' it. Don't touch it!"

In A Few Words:
"Incredible performances, incredible music; a true lesson in how fame can change anyone, and not always for the better"

Total Score:

Matthew Stogdon