The Last Ride
2 out of 4 stars
No, he wasn't a rock star in the strictest sense of the term, but Hank Williams led what would soon come to be referred to as the rock star lifestyle: lots of booze, drugs and women followed by a mysterious, burn-out ending at the ripe age of 29.
Considered by most to be the founder of what used to be known as country and western, Williams, had he lived longer, could have been as prolific as Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Even with just the relatively brief stretch of creative time he had, Williams became a mythical icon whose passing could only possibly be eclipsed by those of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.
The entire plot of "The Last Ride" is to chronicle Williams' last days, most of which is well-known and beyond refute. What isn't at all clear are the events immediately preceding Williams' death. Ironically, this is the part where "The Last Days" succeeds. It is with the actual death scenario -- the part of history that is pretty clear -- where the movie crashes.
Opening in late December 1952, Williams (Henry Thomas), under the alias "Mr. Wells," is about to head out on a quick two-city road trip that will take him from Alabama to West Virginia and then Ohio for two back-to-back New Year's gigs. His manager (Atlanta resident Ray McKinnon) pegs the mostly clueless and green auto mechanic Silas (Jesse James -- not the former husband of Sandra bullock -- the former child actor) to be Williams' driver and hopeful overseer. Silas (not the actual guy's real name) kind-of-sort-of knows Mr. Wells' real identity yet is just smart enough not to announce it.
Once the arrangement has been made, the manager (for reasons made clear shortly thereafter) washes his hands of Williams and tosses the responsibility over to O'Keefe (another fake-named character played by Fred Thompson). From what we can gather, O'Keefe is closer to Williams but has also had his fill of the singer's shenanigans. He too warns Silas about Williams' drinking but only in a half-hearted way.
With the framework of the shaky plot loosely established, director Harry Thomason -- the former TV producer ("Evening Shade," Designing Women") and close friend of Bill Clinton -- switches from a feature film mindset to episodic TV mode with an ultra-shoddy series of scenes that over-paint Williams as an out-of-control hipster/party-boy. One scene includes Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") as the target of one of Williams' pick-up schemes that is beyond pathetic. Another where Williams and Silas trade blows is even worse and borders on farce.
Despite being more than 10 years older than Williams was at the time of his death, Thomas (thanks in part to that still youthful "E.T." face) is able to pull off the part with remarkable clarity and honesty. Probably tempted to but never straying into making Williams a sympathetic character, Thomas walks a fine and tricky line that straddles empathy and loathing. Clearly aware of Williams' knowing, bloated ego, Thomas is still able to lend his character a vulnerability that somewhat makes up for Williams' coarse and boorish antics.
Given Williams' lofted place in not only country, but music history as a whole, it's amazing how few films have been made about him. While making a movie about his final days makes sense in a commercial, tabloid manner, what he needs is something along the lines of "Ray." Displaying a gifted artist spinning wildly out of control as he's about to meet his maker is not the ideal form of honor or remembrance. With an artist of this immense stature and lore, there needs to be an origin film -- one that shows what led up to and created the genius and not just the downfall. (Category One)