By Linc Leifeste | June 4, 2013
Director: Harry Thomason
Writers: Howard Klausner, Dub Cornett
Starring: Henry Thomas, Jesse James, Fred Dalton Thompson, Kaley Cuoco, Ray McKinnon
Imagine yourself as a potential film producer. Someone has cornered you at a party to pitch a dramatic film recounting honky-tonk legend Hank Williams’ last days on this Earth, a fast-fading 29-year-old legend being driven from Alabama to a show in Ohio by 19-year old hired driver, the candle that had been burning at both ends fading to black in the back seat somewhere along the way on New Year’s Day, 1953. Now imagine the pitch taking this surreal turn for the worse: “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to get Harry Thomason (of Designing Women and Evening Shade fame) to direct this film about Hank Williams’ legendary last ride? We could get Howard Klausner (co-writer of Space Cowboys) to write it! And hell, while we’re dreaming, let’s go for a trifecta and get Henry Thomas (of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial fame) to play Hank!” What would your response be? Yeah, I’d cover my wallet and slowly back out of the room as well. And I’m a big Hank Williams fan.
The tortured allure, misery and delight of Hank Williams’ ghost rarely appears in The Last Ride. But then, this isn’t really a film about Hank Williams. Hell, there’s not even a single Hank Williams recording to be heard in the film, which instead features several much more recent sounding cover versions of Hank tunes. Without a doubt this is a licensing issue but it’s indicative of the flaws of a stilted film that is filled with beautiful period cars and clothes but in no other way captures the feel of it’s characters or their era. The film’s focus is squarely on Silas (Jesse James), the young mechanic hired to drive Mr. Wells a.k.a Luke (Henry Thomas) to a New Year’s Eve performance in Charleston, West Virginia. Silas is a timid virgin with little in the way of dreams, aspirations or any characteristics that might elicit the slightest interest from viewers other than a hinted at dark childhood. Surprisingly unbeknownst to Silas, Mr. Wells is, of course, Hank Williams, whose history Thomason and crew don’t bother going into detail about. Instead, through his interactions with Silas, a doctor, a doorman and a few other folks, we learn that Hank is a legend who is down on his luck, that all-too-common Southern caricature of an addicted asshole with a heart of gold.
Despite Silas’ wide-eyed “Ah shucks” mannerisms and seeming inability to stop calling Hank “Mr. Wells” despite repeat entreaties and threats, Hank and Silas ultimately bond during their two day journey as Hank serves as something of a mentor on the importance of taking chances and living life with vitality and the joys and heartbreaks of pursuing the fairer sex. Both Thomas and James give admirable turns but sadly in service to a film with an antiseptic, lifeless feel, one that constantly clashes with both the dark realities and popular imagining of Hank Williams. As well, the film seems to play loose and fast with facts, at least based on what I know of Hank’s ill-fated attempt to make a New Year’s comeback (was there actually a lightning-storm-buffeted plane ride crammed in there or a barroom brawl involving Hank and a drunken GI?). This would be excusable if it served a greater narrative purpose but sadly that’s not the case. Long before Silas discovers that his passenger has given up the ghost, the viewer has the sinking sensation that The Last Ride has already done the same.