It's a strange thing being only two weeks into September and feeling fairly certain that at least one major category of the Oscar race is already over, done, and decided. Then again, that's the nature of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the press and public get their first look at the year's top award contenders. Consider the response to Jamie Foxx in "Ray" at last year's festival, then imagine the same momentum applied to the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line", which premieres today in Toronto. However, it's not Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cash with the single-minded focus of a runaway train, but co-star Reese Witherspoon who steals the show, and if the Academy is listening, they might as well go ahead and give her the award.
At first glance, the similarities between "Walk the Line" and "Ray" are almost too many to mention: You've got the poor-as-dirt music legend who loses his brother in a freak accident, then the uphill battle to be taken seriously before the inevitable run-in with booze and drugs. But Ray Charles was black and blind, whereas Cash seems little more than a lonely soul with unresolved daddy issues, hooked not just on pills, but also on that sparkplug of a singing partner of his, Miss June Carter. The movie is ultimately the story of Cash's lifelong pursuit to win her over, and though we sense that Carter "completes him," Witherspoon plays a woman whose life was already so full, she hardly has room left for him.
Now, just because I expect Witherspoon to win doesn't mean she won't have competition. If Toronto is any indication, she'll likely be facing off against "North Country" star Charlize Theron, who takes the scruffy blue-collar chic she cultivated in "Monster" and applies it to the "Erin Brockovich"-like true story of a single mother so fed up with on-the-job sexual harassment that she files a landmark class-action suit against her male-dominated mining company. "North Country" is powerful stuff, and director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider") proves well suited to capturing the texture of this working-class community, but there's something strangely sanctimonious about Theron's performance. The movie presents her with endless obstacles, but never depicts her as anything short of a saint. Contrast that with the moral complexity of the Aileen Wuornos character for which she won the Oscar, and you'll see why Witherspoon is likely to come out ahead.
[ Peter Debruge is a freelance film critic who writes for The Miami Herald, Premiere and Life magazines. ]