The Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” really has three stars: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Hiddleston’s performance as the hard-living, still-influential country music singer-songwriter is likely to get the most attention, and for good reason. He’s makes an absolutely magnetic Williams, using his wiry frame and wide, thin smile to convey both the fragility of the man and his innate charisma. But Olsen matches Hiddleston as Hank’s ornery, long-suffering first wife, Audrey. Unlike Reese Witherspoon’s ingratiating, Oscar-winning take on June Carter in the Johnny Cash movie “Walk The Line," Olsen’s Audrey has a lot of acid oozing through her, and has no patience for her husband’s boozing and womanizing. Whenever those two are on screen together — nuzzling each other and snarling at each other with a similar intimacy — “I Saw The Light” is something special.
And again, it’d be a mistake to discount what Spinotti adds. “I Saw The Light” was written and directed by Marc Abraham (a veteran producer whose only prior feature writing-directing credit was 2007’s “Flash Of Genius”), and he clearly meant to focus first and foremost on capturing the mythological haze of late ‘40s/early ‘50s country and western circuit. Abraham does a lot with framing and blocking to explore the dynamics of Hank Williams’ relationships, moving him closer to and further from the people in his life depending on where he’s at in his career. But it’s Spinotti’s lighting that makes so many of the images in “I Saw The Light” look like they were torn from the pages of some long-lost Big Book Of American Popular Culture. He makes the most of Hiddleston’s striking profile, shooting him as though he were trying to engrave him onto a nickel.
But Abraham the writer lets down Abraham the director, and ultimately lets down his stars and Spinotti, too. There’s some flavor to the dialogue in “I Saw The Light” that often sounds like it was culled from the plainspoken poetry of Williams’ lyrics. It’s just that even the best lines are mired in the movie’s thick morass of “troubled genius” biopic clichés — the kind that emphasize the “troubled” over the “genius.”
Abraham tells Williams’ story in a straight line, which at first is refreshingly traditionalist (especially in contrast to to the glut of non-chronological biopics like “Get On Up," “Unbroken," and “American Sniper” that all came out last year). The movie begins with Hank marrying Audrey, who tries to push him away from his controlling mother and his penny-ante morning radio show and toward his dream of being a star in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry — all while elbowing her own way onto the stage at every opportunity. Although Williams’ arrogance and unreliability initially make him a tough sell to showbiz moguls, the popularity of songs like “Move It On Over” and “Lovesick Blues” turn him into a top touring attraction, and get him everything he thought he ever wanted. But in the process, Hank’s drinking and his shameless pursuit of any pretty young lady who shows up backstage, costs him the stable family life that he never had himself as a child.
The core weakness of “I Saw The Light” is that Abraham has difficulty connecting all the dots of what turns out to be a frustratingly episodic film. Individual sequences are strong, but there’s a “and then this other thing happened” looseness to the way they’re all put together. It’s hard to see the continuity between the sweet, gung-ho Hank and the guy who sits on the back porch of his Nashville home drunkenly shooting at empty whiskey bottles. One brief scene of a surly Williams describing his music’s sincerity to a slick big city reporter tries to bridge the gap, but there are far too few of those moments that actually try to explain or celebrate the man’s artistry.
That’s especially disappointing because Hiddleston is so commanding during the rare times when Abraham lets him sing an entire song. The performances in “I Saw The Light” are too spaced out, to the extent that after a certain point this becomes a film about a sloppy, selfish drunk, and not a film about the guy who wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” There’s nothing wrong with taking a warts-and-all approach to a pop legend, but when it becomes mostly warts, the reason for making the movie in the first place gets lost. Did Abrahams just want to compose a lot of postcard-pretty pictures of a handsome man in a cowboy hat? Or perhaps he was trying to mimic what Williams says about his singing voice — that whenever he finds a note he likes, he sticks with it. [C]