Film Review: The Last Ride

Alabama teen drives country-music star Hank Williams on his fatal trip to a concert in West Virginia. Squeaky-clean period tale is well-mounted but thin.

The legend of Hank Williams' life is almost as important to country music as his remarkable songs. Dead at 29 from an overdose of chloral hydrate, Williams is a sort of role model for hard-living, self-destructive musicians who are, as his son put it, "whiskey bent and hell bound." You won't find much of the real Williams—by most accounts an aggressive alcoholic and inveterate womanizer—in The Last Ride, a recreation of the singer's final, fatal road trip. Instead, this somber, carefully shot biopic presents the star as a benign, rueful musician full of common-sense advice for his companions.

Just like My Week with Marilyn, screenwriters Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett use an outsider to give viewers a peek at how a star lived. In this case, depressed teen Silas Coombs (Jesse James), an auto mechanic in Alabama's worst gas station, takes a job to drive "Mr. Wells" from Alabama to a New Year's Eve show in West Virginia. The only advice from Stan (Ray McKinnon), a manager: "Don't let him drink."

Coombs in the only person in the state who doesn't know that "Wells"` is a pseudonym for Hank Williams (Henry Thomas), staging a comeback after two failed marriages and a string of broken concert dates. Nearly crippled by a congenital back condition, suffering from alcoholism and drug dependency, and sporting a consumptive cough, Williams starts out surly, nipping from a flask and firing a handgun at other motorists.

Soon he's mellowed enough to reminisce from the back seat about life on the road. Bad weather forces them to spend the night in Chattanooga, where Williams gets a vitamin B-12 injection and drinks himself into a stupor. Other stops include a general store and a county courthouse, where Coombs is hit with a speeding fine.

Through it all, Williams sits stiffly and coughs a lot. He also bemoans his lack of friends, and warns Coombs that fame and fortune "don't matter...not a damn bit of it matters." In a honky tonk outside Mt. Hope, Williams urges Coombs to strike up a romance with Wanda (a woefully miscast Kaley Cuoco), a local gas station attendant.

As the singer, Thomas adopts a stiff gait and the kind of makeup you'd find on a corpse. He doesn't sing, although generally poor covers of Williams songs are sprinkled through the soundtrack. But the actor simply isn't a convincing drunk or hellion—like the film's cars and props, he is too scrubbed and antiseptic. Director Harry Thomason tends to dial back the other performers until they barely register.

Producer Benjy Gaither is the son of Bill Gaither, a significant figure in contemporary country gospel music, which may account for The Last Ride's sympathetic, upbeat tone. There's nothing wrong per se with turning Williams and his last days into a tidy cautionary tale. But the film bears little relation to what actually happened, and doesn't have much of interest to say about the singer. Williams, one of the great artists of the 20th century, deserves better.