Judge Gordon Sullivan's last ride was the Tilt-a-Whirl at the firemen's carnival.
Music's Original Bady Boy!
Essentially, if you like any American vocal music of the last sixty years, you owe a debt to Hank Williams. Though he died before the age of thirty, he left behind a songbook and a story that has influenced the development of country, folk, and rock 'n' roll ever since. Though country radio may be unrecognizable in light of Williams' music, his hard-drinking, hard-driving attitude still reigns supreme. The fact that he died young, under mysterious and drug-fueled circumstances, means it's no surprise that someone has attempted a biopic. Though The Last Ride can boast a decent central performance, it is nowhere near the movie that Williams' legacy deserves.
The facts surrounding Williams' death are strange. The singer (played here by Henry Thomas, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) was scheduled to play a New Year's Eve show in West Virginia, but an ice storm prevented him from flying so he hired a college kid (Jesse James, Blow) to drive him from Alabama to his shows. Due to the ice storm, the pair were unable to make it to West Virginia and were instead told to keep driving to a New Year's Day show in Ohio. Along the way, Williams died in the back of the car and an autopsy revealed that though his death was likely caused by the ingestion of alcohol and drugs he'd also been beaten recently. The Last Ride (Blu-ray) tells a fictionalized version of this story.
With the life of Hank Williams, there are really two stories at play. On the one hand, you have the belligerent, hard-drinking (and hard-working) genius famous for missing shows but able to sing like an angel. On the other hand, you have the tortured genius who drinks and gets addicted to morphine at least partially because he suffers from spina bifida, his belligerence explained by near-constant pain. Right in the middle of these two stories, we have the mystery of his death. Did he piss off someone and take a beating that led to his death? Did the pills and booze finally catch up to him? What role did his driver play in all this?
The Last Ride fails because it doesn't fully commit to any one story, instead choosing a wishy-washy middle ground. In this version of events, Williams is a belligerent drunk, but he's really got a heart of gold that helps his young driver learn some valuable truths about the world. Instead of giving us the legend (which would have been wonderful with the right actor) or poking holes in the legend (an equally promising choice given Williams' famous drinking and attitude), The Last Ride turns into an afterschool special that's true to neither Williams' legend or his biography. I would have even accepted a totally fictional story of a last-minute caper to explain Williams' beating if it meant abandoning the sappy core of this film.
Once the decision to sort-of whitewash Williams was made, everything else about the film went downhill. Everything else about the film became generic, from the set design to the directing, which is often confined to the back of a car. It takes a lot of gusto to make numerous car scenes work, but The Last Ride doesn't have that kind of energy.
The lone exception is Henry Thomas as Hank Williams. Thomas has a boyish face that seems incapable of guile and though he doesn't look much like his subject he conveys much of the charm and youth that Williams projects in his publicity photos. Thomas also has the startling ability to seem more world-weary than his years would suggest, and that fits perfectly with the hard-driving lifestyle Williams is known for. I only wish his talents could have been spent on a more satisfactory script.
Luckily, The Last Ride (Blu-ray) is also pretty decent. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is solid. The whole film seems to have been shot digitally, so while it has a decent amount of detail it also feels a little flat. That, however, is a problem with the source and not this transfer, which also features strong saturation and good black levels. The DTS-HD track is a bit better, offering both dialogue and the necessary musical cues with impressive clarity and balance. The lone extra is a short featurette that looks at the film's production. It's not much, but it's okay.
The Last Ride isn't a terrible movie, but Hank Williams is a towering figure in twentieth century American music, and if Ray Charles and Johnny Cash can get Oscar-winning biopics, then Williams deserves the same treatment. For now, some fans will appreciate The Last Ride for Thomas' performance, but they shouldn't expect too much.
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