Hot Take: Some excellent performances are buried in this banal telling of the life of Hank Williams. If you ever need a Wikipedia page in visual form, I Saw the Light might be it.
Somewhere toward the middle of the second act, after losing interest yet again in this poorly written, choppy mess of a biopic, I decided to read the Wikipedia page of Hank Williams. Actually, Williams’ Wikipedia page had a little more depth than I Saw the Light but the story that unravels on screen basically runs down the highlights on his page and not much else. The film barely scratches the surface of the man that was Hank Williams and because it spends so little time on any one aspect of his life, this Williams biopic is an exercise in marginalizing. As big as Williams’ accomplishments in music were, the story spends very little time dwelling on this or any other aspect of his life. Instead, it’s a 2 hour, 3 minute extended montage.
I Saw the Light has the depth of a shower stall. You’d think Williams was a guy who sang some songs, drank a little bit, got married a few times and died young. Instead, he was an iconic, influential country singer with crossover impact who was tormented by the demons of alcoholism and mishandled life on the road by supplementing it with hard partying and women. There are glimpses of a good movie somewhere in this mess but the uneven writing and constant cuts from one subject to the other make it incoherent at times. It’s as if the filmmakers took the book it was based on — Hank Williams: The Biography — and randomly flipped open to a page then filmed whatever was on the page even if that page didn’t finish telling the entire story. Then they flipped to another. Then another. And another.
There are a few memorable scenes highlighted by Tom Hiddleston’s excellent performance that give more than a glimpse into Williams but the moments are so few and far between, the 2+ hour investment doesn’t yield enough return. There are so many things hinted about in the film that aren’t every fully fleshed out. You feel like you’ve gotten half of an interesting story which is even more aggravating considering how much time the film wastes on certain moments even if those moments only last a minute or two. Hiddleston’s commitment to the Williams character (right down to the swell job he does singing Hank’s tunes) isn’t enough to salvage this mess.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
The highlight of the film is unequivocally his performance. There are three great scenes — all centered around Hiddleston — that are carried by his acting and would stand out even more if the film carried any redeeming qualities.
- The Songs
The film does a good job of showcasing Williams’ work. Even if his music isn’t your cup of sweet tea, it’s easy to see how Williams transcended his genre and impacted other artists outside of the world of country music, even if the film never touches on the subject.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Missed Opportunities
Ironically, I Saw the Light keeps the audience in the dark frequently. For example, in the opening scene, Williams marries Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) in a Texaco Station in Alabama. The justice of the peace asks about Sheppard’s divorce being legal since it was only 10 days prior to her pending nuptials. While the film never references it again, their marriage was declared illegal. Later, in the film, the couple (maybe?) gets divorced. All of this is so poorly explained, it’s frustrating.
- Is It Southern Hospitality?
The film has a lot of respect for Williams and his hard working nature that it doesn’t seem to want to besmirch his legacy. His drinking and cheating are passed off as almost happenstance. His missing gigs and commitments dismissed as the product of working too hard. There’s a complex character in Williams just not the one we’re made privy to in I Saw the Light.
- Poor Editing Choices
Someone else might be able to take the existing footage from I Saw the Light and put together a more concise, watchable version. There are definitely scenes that were victim to the cutting room floor while others drag on for too long.