'I Saw the Light'
The tale of Country/Western singer Hank Williams, Sr. is such a fascinating and distinctly American tragedy that it seems like it would be nearly impossible to make an uninteresting film about his life. Yet here comes ‘I Saw the Light’, a bio-pic so generic and dull that audiences could be forgiven for wandering out of the film wondering just what all the fuss was about Hank Williams.
That’s a real shame. The guy deserved a better movie than this, especially given how long it took for him to get one at all. Granted, Tom Hiddleston gives an impressive performance (the guy is capable of nothing less), so that’s something. However, it’s hard to imagine the film appealing to anyone other than the most devoted of Hiddleston-philes, and even they will likely go home disappointed.
Rather than an attempting a birth-to-death version of the Hank Williams story, writer/director Marc Abraham (‘Flash of Light’) narrows in on the singer/songwriter’s professional career. We meet a 22-year-old Williams (Hiddeston) marrying his young bride Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station. From there, it’s a tale of minor trials and tribulations as the talented musician slowly earns his place as one of the Country music greats. The success of his career is paralleled with the difficulties of his marriage, as booze and self-destruction and jealousy (the wife fancied herself a singer, but no one else agreed) slowly rot it away as his career took off. Eventually, they split up and Williams continues to juggle professional success with personal failure as he weaves his way through a few more failed relationships and more than a few gallons of booze. You already know the end of the story, and if you don’t, it’s but a quick Wikipedia search away.
The weirdest thing about ‘I Saw the Light’ is that we never get much of a sense of how or why Williams was able to create such iconic music. That’s particularly strange considering that Williams’ work was so painfully personal. I suppose much of that could be attributed to the ways in which ‘Walk Hard‘ so mercilessly mocked and discredited the forms of bio-pic shorthand that bring lyrics to life. Likewise, we rarely get to see people appreciate or connect to Williams’ music. Again, it’s likely the result of Abraham hoping to avoid cliché by skipping over the typical music discovery montages. His motivation makes sense, but there’s no shaking the fact that it makes very little sense to make a movie about Hank Williams with no insight into the inspiration or appreciation of the music that are the only reasons this movie exists in the first place. It’s baffling, but at least we do get to hear all the famous songs and Hiddleston performs them well once you get use to his base tones replacing Williams’ high-pitched and pained squeal.
With Abraham and his team not showing much interest in the music of Hank Williams, at least we can expect a moving rendition of the tragic life that inspired it, right? Well, not so fast. It’s here that Abraham gives into his worst instincts, delivering a series of scenes in which Williams drinks while sad, drinks while angry, drinks while sick, and drinks while drinking in one long “Drinking is Bad” montage masquerading as a movie. Beyond Williams’ first wife, none of his other love interests get much screen time or presence, even though they’re theoretically supposed to be the closest thing to a bright spot in this sad and lonely life story. It’s all pretty miserable, but not particularly interesting. A complicated man is reduced to an alcoholic stereotype and everyone around him is little more than a sounding board for Williams’ complaints. It’s a real missed opportunity, since there was so much more to explore in Williams’ life than the basics. The film’s refusal to explore the meaning or success of his music does nothing to make up for the tiresome drama.
Thankfully, at least Tom Hiddleson is at the center of it all. He might not have particularly great scenes to play, but he plays the hell out of them. From the smiling confidence masking deep doubt, and from the early days to the sunken pool of self-destruction in the closing scenes, Hiddleston completely disappears into the role even when he isn’t singing along to those famous heartbreaking tunes. He admirably never attempts mere impression, instead carving out his own path and character, and the film is all the better for it. Elizabeth Olsen has even less to work with in the tedious screenplay, but matches Hiddleston with ease during their film-length sparring match. Both performers are so strong in their limited roles that they carry the entire film on their shoulders and make it far more watchable than it has any right to be. They’re so well cast that it’s a genuine tragedy they didn’t end up in a Hank Williams movie that properly honored the man or his music.
‘I Saw the Light’ could have been something special. Instead, it’s just a tedious retread of scenes you’ve seen in other bio-pics and sadly fumbles a story worth telling.