The movie is dark and sad. Drug addiction cast a pall over the story. Joaquin Phoenix, who is no stranger to tortured characters or dark plots, carried the role of Johnny Cash believably. Reese Witherspoon, whose previous credits include such deep work as Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde, played June Carter, Cash’s main love interest. She was also very convincing.
Our friends Jeff and Kelly have gotten us in the habit of evaluating a movie by asking, “Was there redemtion?” It’s been an incredibly useful exercise. Poignant redemtion was what made me want to cry after reading A Tale of Two Cities. I went to bed last night depressed after watching Walk the Line. There was a feeble effort at redemtion, but it wasn’t convincing.
After June Carter pulled Johnny Cash from the depths of drug-induced darkness, she told him that God had given him a second chance to make a difference in the world. He realized as he read through letters from fans in prison that he had influence he needed to use for good, for God. There was a brief scene where the two lovers held hands as they walked nervously toward a church. Convincing, no? No. All those scenes weren’t enough to convincingly demonstrate redemtion.
Why do I say that? Because as a Christian, I have some tools useful for evaluating the changes inside a person. Of course, man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. But Matthew recorded Jesus as saying, “By your fruits you shall know them.” He was saying that a person’s intentions and inner substance eventually work their way to the outside of that person.
Application: Johnny Cash’s continued denial of his wife and children evidence a continued denial of both God’s commands and his manly responsibility. Secondly, Cash’s portrayed use of his newfound mission doesn’t square with a desire to serve God (and good). His performance at Folsom Prison, intended to show his commitment to identification with the prisoners, saw a lack of any meaningful message toward good. As portrayed in Walk the Line, Johnny Cash appropriated God’s grace for his own inner transformation but stopped short of proclamation.
I know that the real Johnny Cash sang lots of great gospel music. I love his deep voice, driving chords, and the emotion that dripped from his silvered throat. So the disconnect between the portrayal of Cash’s faith and his proclamations must be one of several places: either
- the disconnect was very real,
- Cash failed to communicate the substance of his faith in his autobiography,
- those who created the movie didn’t understand the substance of Cash’s faith,
- or their portrayal was genuinely intended but badly executed.
Even for great actors, it’s hard to portray a life-change as a result of the grace of God without having experienced it. And as one who knows that grace firsthand, I can see the difference.