I SAW THE LIGHT
Director: Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson
MPAA Rating: (for some language and brief sexuality/nudity)
Running Time: 2:03
Release Date: 3/25/16 (limited); 4/1/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 1, 2016
Hank Williams' short life and shorter career is the subject of I Saw the Light, a shallow biography that moves from one event in Williams' life to the next without a lick of insight. What we learn from the movie is that the man sang, drank, got into fights with his wife, drank some more, sang a few more times, suffered from a degenerative birth defect, and got into fights with other women before dying young on account of all the drinking. The movie supposes these facts are, in and of themselves, interesting enough to carry the weight of a narrative. It supposes incorrectly.
This is the stuff of an encyclopedia entry. Whatever made Williams special in the world of country music is lost, and whatever made the man tick isn't even suggested, unless the ambition to become a star is enough of a revealing motivation for someone interested in the subject. Again, the movie assumes wrongly.
The screenplay by Marc Abraham (based on Colin Escott's biography of the singer, written with George Merritt and William MacEwen), who also directed, doesn't even provide a tangible through line for the narrative. The movie opens with Williams' marriage to his first wife, which suggests that their relationship will be the key to uncovering something about the man. The story sticks to that thought process for a bit, but the character of his wife is dropped as soon as she is no longer part of his life. That, of course, might have been the way of things in reality, but reality is secondary to some degree in such biographical movies. In terms of dramatic narrative, which should be the primary concern of a filmmaker tackling material like this, the erasure feels like a betrayal. If the element that opens and takes up such a significant portion of the movie isn't its central point, then what is?
That's a question Abraham doesn't want to address, because he's too busy offering a compilation of Williams' greatest musical hits and lowest personal moments. The only context is that these things happened. Left unanswered are the questions of why they happened and what significance they hold—in terms of music, the nature of fame, whatever demons Williams may have had, or anything, really.
Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and sings his hits. It's a fine performance on both counts, with the actor doing a commendable job of dropping the last consonant of his gerunds, making diphthongs of singular vowels, adopting a Southern twang, and adroitly yodeling his way through the oohs of "Lovesick Blues." As for the performance apart from the singing, it hints at the kind of depth that Abraham omits.
Of vital importance for a significant chunk of the story is Hank's relationship with Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who dreams of becoming a country singer herself. She's not a good singer, and that, along with both partners' need to be in control of things, causes some tension. There's also the bossy grasp that Hank's mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) has on her son, although, just as Audrey is summarily dismissed from the story as soon as she becomes unnecessary, Lillie exits without a trace, only to return for the final act.
It's odd that a movie so obsessed with the timeline of a life can feel so sloppily assembled. That, though, is the case here, and it's primarily because of the obsession with presenting a chronological, point-by-point timeline of the significant recordings, performances, and personal events of Williams' life. There's no time for inspection—no effort to see him as anyone more than a man who's happy while he's on stage and miserable when he's off it (Abraham and cinematographer Dante Spinotti intentionally keep Hiddleston's eyes in shadow under his cowboy hat, even when he's under blinding stage lights, just so we're constantly reminded of the darkness beneath that cheery surface). There's a single moment when the personal and professional bleed together at an outdoor festival, as he takes on the persona of "Luke the Drifter," a pseudonym he used for reasons that the movie never bothers to explicate.
Even without the proper context, that moment is fascinating, because it's the one time the movie takes a leap of faith into the terrain of portraying the man's performances as some sort of personal exorcism (Another scene, in which he's interviewed by a journalist played by David Krumholtz, just comes right out and says it, without, again, providing the background for it to really register). Otherwise, I Saw the Light careens through Williams' life and career without stopping to tell us why they matter.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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