Anyone with more than a passing interest in classic country music knows the story: In late 1952, Hank Williams was still producing hit records, but everything else in his life and career was in a tailspin. He had developed a reputation for missing concert dates or showing up too drunk to play, he’d been fired from the Grand Ole Opry, he was stuck in his second bad marriage, and he was in poor health.
Williams was drinking heavily and relying on painkillers and “vitamin” shots from unscrupulous doctors to get through the day when he set out to play a pair of fast-money dates on New Year’s Eve 1952 and New Year’s Day 1953, a short tour from which he would never return. The movie The Last Ride follows Williams on the last few days of his life as he bonds with a young man who tries to help the great singer rise above his demons, but what could have been a study of the final act of a great American artist turns into a lackadaisical buddy flick in which we never really find out much about the main characters beyond what’s on the surface.
In The Last Ride, Silas (Jesse James) is a 19-year-old who works as a mechanic at a filling station in Montgomery, AL, and doesn’t care for the job or his hardheaded boss. In late December 1952, a man comes in with a shiny Cadillac Eldorado who needs to have the car greased and is looking for someone willing to act as his driver. Silas takes the job, and on December 30, he shows up at the home of one “Mr. Wells” (Henry Thomas) and is given instructions that his passenger must arrive in Charleston, WV, by 7 p.m. the following day, and that under no circumstances should Mr. Wells be allowed to drink. Silas, who doesn’t listen to music and doesn’t even own a radio, fails to recognize that his passenger is really Hank Williams, the biggest star in country music, and Mr. Wells doesn’t let on, telling Silas to call him Luke when he gets tired of being addressed as Sir. Wells is a frequently belligerent passenger who periodically demands to be taken to a liquor store, and at one point produces a pistol when he needs to reinforce his points. A sleet storm soon hits the South, and Silas and Wells are stuck in Knoxville, TN, for the night. Wells isn’t exactly the friendly type, but as he chats with Silas over drinks at the hotel bar, he begins to feel something for this kid -- only ten years younger than himself -- who can’t decide what to do in life; Wells encourages him to follow his passion and not be so shy around girls. But the next day is little short of a disaster, as weather, fate, and Wells’ impulsive nature conspire against the singer and his new friend as they try to make it to Charleston.
The Last Ride opens with a title card informing us that most of what follows is true, but “most” is the operative word; the screenplay by Howard Klausner and Dub Cornett has taken a handful of liberties with the story, turning Charles Carr, a college student on break, into hapless grease monkey Silas, and giving him a love interest along the way (played by Kaley Cuoco, who seems more comfortable with the tomboy side of her character than the sweeter personality that emerges later). Plus there’s the fact that the script changes the names of most of Williams’ associates. The film does hew closer to the truth than the 1964 biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart, but it doesn’t offer a very compelling portrait of a fascinating man. As Mr. Wells, Henry Thomas is mostly a cipher, a thirsty man with a bad cough and a temper who never reveals anything about his creative side, never so much as picks up a guitar, and doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s the man who wrote some of the most enduring songs of the 20th century. The screenplay gives Thomas very little to work with, but he doesn’t add much on his own, and he doesn’t even look convincingly ill; he’s too robust to be believable as a man on death’s door (and his bad back seems to affect him only when it’s convenient). Jesse James similarly delivers a one-note performance as Silas, looking either fearful or confused at every turn, and his “friendship” with Wells never amounts to more than two people tolerating one another. Director Harry Thomason tries to give the material a convincing period flavor, but the often shoddy green-screen effects and patently fake rain and snow take away from the movie’s costuming and production design, and the pacing is frustratingly slow, relying too much on banter between driver and passenger that repeatedly covers the same ground. (The film also never explains why hardly anyone recognizes Hank Williams, one of the most famous men in the South, even as he travels in his stage clothes.)
There’s a great picture to be made about Hank Williams, a troubled genius who helped to convince the world that country music wasn’t doggerel but a genuine art form. But The Last Ride doesn’t say much of interest about Williams as a man or an artist, and for all its good intentions, this is a bland, dreary movie adrift on some cinematic lost highway.
Henry Thomas stars as country-music icon Hank Williams in this biographical drama set during the last week of the singer/songwriter's life, when he finally succumbed to the many demons that plagued him. A living legend whose quick temper and hard drinking had nearly destroyed his life and career by 1952, Williams booked a pair of New Year's concerts that were intended as his big comeback. The shows were set to be performed in West Virginia and Ohio, and determined to get there on time, Williams hired a young college student as his driver. Despite Williams' fame, the naïve wheelman had no idea of his passenger's true identity. Meanwhile, as the mismatched pair navigated the winding Appalachian roads en route to a gig that was never meant to be, one of the greatest chapters in the history of country music was about to come to a sudden and tragic end. leave a comment --Mark Deming