We had free passes to see this last night and dutifully made our way outsde the loop to a megaplex we'd never seen before. The night was hosted by the Houston Chronicle (source of our free passes) and some local country radio station (Gene always argues that since their call letters are KILT that they should be playing Scottish music, but I digress). Ironic of course, considering how little support country music stations gave Cash over the years. But nice freebie posters (we grabbed a handful, so let us know if you'd like one).
From the very first frames Phoenix's Cash is sweating profusely -- he seems to burn all the way through the film. It's a flame that powers his inspiration -- and his danger. It kind of helps that I already know a lot of the story, although this is not really so much a biography of Cash and Carter, as the account of their inevitable collision. From the first moment when little J.R. hears 10 year old June on the radio (a moment, Gene pointed out, that would seem totally over the top if it weren't true), it seems they are careening toward one another as much as they try to hold back.
The flame that is Cash crashes through life unable to shake off the shadow of his brother's untimely death, unable to knuckle under to the "realities" of life his wife Vivian tries to get him to reconcile himself to absorbing. But he's unable to ignore the siren song of music, of fame, of Carter's good girl charm. While Vivian tries to bank the flames, Witherspoon's Carter feels its draw but resists surrendering to it. It's wonderful to watch these two inhabit their roles. Phoenix becomes Cash, growing into the voice of the battered penitent, while Witherspoon brings out the amazing strength beneath the polished professional exterior. There's a wonderful scene where a Southern woman puritannically rips her apart with matter-of-fact cruelty, and she responds with conciliatory words of apology that show both her well-trained persona and the depths of her pain. While her life is sketched even more lightly than Cash's, there are many moments of delight, such as when she and her folks chase off Cash's would-be drug dealer. If only her legs weren't so skinny! It's inhuman.
Phoenix will undoubtedly receive the bulk of the acclaim, but they both do terrific jobs appropriating this story of a love that burns and nearly consumes them both.