Hank Williams is one of those iconic figures in American pop culture – though predominantly the country and Western music scene – whose influence was far-reaching and significant enough that it's easy to understand why, sixty years after his death, there would be enough interest to justify another film putting him in the spotlight.
Now, admittedly, the first film, 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' was made just 12 years after Williams' death, and starred George Hamilton, so it's not like 'The Last Ride' is in danger of finding itself in a 'Deep Impact'/'Armageddon' situation. But more importantly, unlike the 1964 film, this is not a biopic detailing the short life and times of "music's original bad boy." Instead, this is an entirely fictional account of Williams' final days before his death in early 1953.
Directed by Harry Thomason and starring Henry Thomas, 'The Last Ride' is a simple, sweet natured, but somewhat saccharine look at a man on a journey to his end after his best days were clearly behind him. Williams (referred to throughout the film as Mr. Wells) is journeying from Alabama to a pair of scheduled New Year's performances in West Virginia and Ohio. Along for the journey is Mr. Wells' newly appointed driver Silas Combs (Jesse James), a 19-year-old mechanic that despite being just 10-years his employer's junior, hasn't done half the living (good or bad) that Hank has.
While eagerly presenting itself as a road trip featuring two men of roughly the same age yet wildly disparate life experiences, 'The Last Ride' has a hard time establishing exactly what it's trying to say about either. It's clear (by the title and by Thomas' portrayal) Hank Williams is soon to shuffle off this mortal coil, but his interactions with Silas suggest a man who has lived hard and will continue to do right up until the end, so if there's a lesson there, it's not too clear. There's also a slight implication that Mr. Wells is encouraging Silas to begin living life like each day may be his last, and while the film manages to avoid becoming too morbid or fixated on death, it would have been to the narrative's benefit for a clearer theme to have been imparted on the nascent relationship between a young, but very world weary celebrity and his younger, but very naïve and inexperienced companion.
The film hits all the usual road movie pit stops along the way. Mr. Wells and Silas wind up in trouble with the law, they share a tender moment with some of the colorful, backwoods locals who invite them into their group (being a celebrity helps) to sit by the fire, enjoy some home cooked soup and moonshine, and wistfully go on about the wonder of music. But most importantly, through the tutelage and down-home charm of his employer, Silas manages to romance a young proprietor of a gas station played by the somewhat out of place Kaley Cuoco ('The Big Bang Theory').
It's all very sweet, but the proceedings are mechanical and although the scenes are clearly intended to have meaning, they fail to carry much weight or to inform of their significance, leading to a conclusion that feels overly telegraphed in spite of its inevitability. Most of the problem is in the screenplay's unwillingness to give either character enough to do. This is a road trip, so most scenes are played out with James behind the wheel while Thomas sits in the backseat, peppering the boy with countrified witticisms and trying to get to the bottom of why it is Silas doesn't know much about anything and doesn’t have any experiences worth sharing. Clearly the film is trying to suggest that Silas is a blank slate, and that his run-in with Hank Williams will inspire him to take the bull by the horns and start living life – hopefully by imbibing fewer intoxicants – but really, the problem is Silas is a complete cipher and Mr. Wells is defined only by what the audience might already know of him.
There's a difference between inexperience and nonexistence that 'The Last Ride' doesn't seem to be able to zero in on, and because of that the narrative primarily consists of a series of conversations Hanks Williams has with a non-entity. This could have been played up as Williams coming to terms with his demons, or attempting to impart some fatherly wisdom to a young man standing in for the son he would tragically never get to know – but instead it's really just Hank Williams trying to start a conversation with some boring kid for nearly two-hours. Maybe the whole thing is an allegory about parents struggling to find common ground with their kids when they become teenagers. Not likely, but it's an entertaining alternative.
Two-dimensional characters aside, the film's production values aren't doing it any favors, either. I'd imagine budget is of huge concern on a shoot of this size, so on one hand it's impressive what was achieved. But on the other hand, relying heavily on laughable CGI weather conditions and even more ludicrous green-screened backgrounds tends to take the viewer out of the magic that is the wonderful world of cinema. It's not just that the effects are bad; it's the insistence from whomever (the director, a producer, possibly?) they be used at all – instead of finding a cost-effective and believable alternative – that makes this shoddy production seem even more inferior than it needed to be.
In fact, the only thing holding 'The Last Ride' together is an overwhelming and charming sense of earnestness and the performance of Henry Thomas – who does more with nothing than any actor should be asked to do.
This fictional account of Hank Williams' final days certainly has its heart in the right place, and that is always a factor to take note of. But no amount of heart will help this film rise above the mediocrity at its core.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Last Ride' comes from 20th Century Fox as a single 50GB Blu-ray in an eco-keepcase. There are a handful of previews before the film reaches the top menu, but they can all be skipped.
'The Last Ride' eventually makes the most of a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, but it takes a while, as the beginning of the film closely resembles a TV movie being shot on video. Thankfully, once things get moving (and Thomas and James are on a closed set, surrounded by green screens) the image begins to look more filmic – though it never completely sheds the overly sterile HD look that new productions can sometimes have.
Still, on the bright side, there is a good amount of fine detail and some nice vibrant colors in the image that help to distract from the substandard quality of the picture in some areas. For the most part, skin tones are rendered quite well and textures are present in nearly every scene, typically highlighted in clothing and other sources of fabric. The film's color palette is mostly dark blues, blacks and grays, but the occasional bit of green or red really stands out and looks terrific onscreen.
The most complimentary anyone can be about the image here is in regard to the contrast levels, which are always high and keep the black levels from overpowering the image, even during low light or nighttime sequences. Ultimately, this is a sharp-looking image on a film that doesn't seem to have been produced with optimal image quality or visual storytelling in mind.
The DTS-HD 5.1 mix does a great job of highlighting both the film's dialogue and its use of newly recorded versions of classic Hank Williams songs. Finding the right balance between the conversations, sound effects and the music can sometimes be a challenge for discs both new and old. On 'The Last Ride,' however, the balance between the three elements seems to be where this disc excels.
For the most part, all the dialogue comes through the center channel speaker, which affords the mix the opportunity to fill the front speakers with music, while casually filling the rear channels with an all-pervading sense of traveling on the road. The mix does a great job of constantly, but casually reminding the viewer that a fair percentage of the film takes place between two men in a moving vehicle. In addition to the sound of the road, the mix manages to introduce other ambient noises that help to create the illusion of being in a confined space and the friction of tires on asphalt.
The highlight, however, is the film's soundtrack, which sounds great and will be a treat for fans of Williams' songs. Every selection sounds different, but also great, and while that may not appeal to purists, something tells me this film won't either. Still, for a film loosely about Hank Williams, it's good to see it can include some music folks will recognize and the tunes sound great as well.
While 'The Last Ride' doesn't necessarily go out of its way to inform the viewer that what they're seeing is fictional, and is not truly representative of Hank Williams' final days, the film does pay tribute to the man with a more factual account that plays just prior to the end credits. Although it's an odd narrative choice, the fictionalization aspect isn't where the film's storyline stumbles; it's more because neither Mr. Wells or Silas Combs come off as being fully realized characters. In the end, this road trip fails to enlighten the audience about who Hank Williams really was, or how these two young men would have an impact on the other's life. Still, Henry Thomas manages to be interesting and the disc offers better than average image and sound quality, which highlights a fun soundtrack. This one won't satisfy everyone, but it's worth a rental at least.