Hank Williams’s life and career were tragically short, but unfortunately all you get from Marc Abraham’s new biopic is the “tragically” half of that equation. Sorely lacking in narrative drive, I Saw the Light seems to go on forever as we’re dragged through one sad moment after another in the life of this flawed genius.
It’s too bad that I Saw the Light is so boring, because Williams deserves a portrait that gives a new generation a sense of what a seminal figure he was in 20th century American music. Williams established the paradigm of contemporary country music as we know it: a vehicle for lonesome-cowboy singer-songwriters with personal songs spanning moods from raucous celebration to poignant heartbreak.
Abraham has a fine Williams in Tom Hiddleston, who combines lean good looks with boyish charm — and who, despite his British upbringing (and despite the fact that he’s now six years older than the singer was when he died), wears both Williams’s famous hat and his Alabama accent well. In fact, Abraham is almost too enraptured with the handsome image of Hiddleston as Williams: from the film’s very first shot, the actor is virtually trapped in amber, his inner life left for us to deduce.
The film opens in 1944, as Williams marries his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olson) in a service station, the justice-of-the-peace attendant officiating. Abraham quickly establishes the dynamic of his protagonist’s life: singular talent, weakness for booze, wandering eye, bad back. Over the course of two hours, I Saw the Light does little more than shuffle the deck of those elements until its hand is more than played out.
Writer-director Abraham, whose only previous directorial credit is a forgotten 2008 film about (I’m not making this up) the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, seems to have confused a feature film with an Instagram account. His approach to storytelling is almost impressionistic: elegantly composed scenes drift past, each revealing some particular detail of Williams’s life but none of them really penetrating to the character’s heart.
Hank and Audrey in bed together. Hank and Audrey fighting. Audrey and Hank’s mother (Cherry Jones) fighting. Hank flirting. Hank drinking. Hank singing. Hank going clean. Hank hunting. Hank drinking again. Hank and Audrey fighting again. Hank in bed with a new girl. Rinse with whiskey, repeat.
Abraham is bewilderingly reticent to allow key plot developments to happen onscreen: time and again, we’re informed that something’s happened offscreen (marriage, divorce, birth, death, you name it) as the film rushes to get nowhere in particular.
Perhaps even more critical a failing, for a music biopic, is Abraham’s inability to generate any sense of excitement around Williams’s music. Songs like “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the film’s title song are classics of their kind, but the fact is that they can sound quaint to a mainstream 21st century audience; it was Abraham’s job to light a fire under these songs, but the only flame he finds burns slow and low.
The result is that none of Williams’s highs feel very high, and none of his lows feel very low. If the singer is usually a little drunk, so is the film: unfocused and sluggish, with a tendency to fixate on trivial details that only seem profound.
One scene gives a flash of what this movie might have been: a tense interview between Williams and a journalist who wincingly confronts the singer with rumors of his womanizing and alcohol abuse. Williams shoots back that his fans use him to exorcise their own demons by proxy, suggesting an interesting idea that is nowhere else in evidence here — the fans remain at as much of a remove as does Williams’s own inner life.
The cast members do yeoman’s work, and unfortunately it’s only superfans of the actors involved who are likely to enjoy this film: a telling of Hank Williams’s life that turns its transformative central character into a bland cipher.