Writer/director Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light tells the story of country music legend Hank Williams, whose distinctive vocal twang and simple yet brilliant songwriting made him one of the most popular and influential American musical artists of the 20th century, with some 35 Top 10 hit songs to his name — among them tracks like “Move It On Over,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that are permanently woven into the fabric of American life and pop culture. Tom Hiddleston, better known around these parts as the villainous Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portrays Williams, while Elizabeth Olsen plays his wife, Audrey, with whom he shared a tumultuous eight-year marriage.
Williams’ effect on the American musical landscape was vast, especially for someone who was only active for roughly 16 years and died at the age of 29. But you might not know it from this movie, in which the cumulative portrait of Williams is that of a jerk. It’s not Hiddleston’s fault; he gives his all in the role, affecting a decent Southern accent and doing all his own singing. But he is saddled with a script that is frustratingly sketchy, with the film making large narrative leaps across Williams’ life that often leave the viewer wondering who the hell everyone is and what they are doing hanging around this guy who just seems to treat everyone like shit.
The movie loosely follows the upward trajectory of Williams’ career, starting with his radio show on Montgomery, Alabama radio station WSFA and chronicling the formation of his band, his first hits and his ups-and-downs with Audrey. Olsen, also now a Marvel repertory player like Hiddleston, is game but has to work hard to raise Audrey even a little above a stereotypical nag who wants to share in her husband’s career to the point of singing with him onstage. And then of course, there are the drugs and alcohol, mainly the latter, which lurk around the edges of every scene and eventually take center stage as Williams slowly and predictably self-destructs, canceling shows and especially missing dates at the Grand Old Opry.
Throughout it all, a clear picture of Hank Williams remains out of reach and Abraham’s surface-level screenplay and humdrum direction offer no insight whatsoever into what drove the artist, what inspired his songs and how his closest relationships affected him (like that with his mother, played by Cherry Jones, which like everything else is touched on and then passed by). There is no larger theme or tapestry at work here; the movie shows you something that happened in Williams’ life and then moves on, as if the movie is built around an outline but someone forgot to fill in most of the essential information. Black and white “interview” sequences meant to serve as exposition only perpetuate the sense that you’re watching an incomplete story.
Some of the musical sequences show a little energy, thanks to Hiddleston’s spirited performances and the greatness of the tunes themselves. But then the film gets right back to the singer’s life offstage, which mostly seems to consist of brooding, drinking, pain and shame. Abraham is simply a terrible director and storyteller, bringing no flair to the proceedings, no greater mission, and no sense of what Williams was about other than portraying him as almost a parody of the tormented artists who infest most standard biopics these days. The result is a film that’s so dull and lifeless than Williams’ death literally happens offscreen.
Abraham has worked mostly as a producer, on films ranging from the sublime (Children of Men) to the ridiculous (the 2011 remake of The Thing), but his only previous directorial effort was 2008’s Flash of Genius, another biographical film about the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper and sued to receive recognition for it from the Ford Motor Company. Nothing in I Saw the Light indicates that Abraham feels any passion for the story of Hank Williams, nor does it hint at why he thought it might make good material for a film. Even the title itself — taken from one of Williams’ gospel numbers — seems arbitrary and unintentionally ironic: there is no illumination here at all of an artist whose life story and legacy deserve it.
I Saw the Light is out in theaters now.