Note: images do not reflect the contents of The Last Ride's Blu Ray edition.
If nothing else, the 2012 indie The Last Ride demonstrates how much digital technology has infiltrated the most unlikeliest of cinema. Although one wouldn't think that CGI would be needed too much on a 1950s period piece delving into the last days in the life of country music legend Hank Williams, this low-budget effort is often smothered over by obvious digital trickery. It's not a bad film - at times, it's even quite heartfelt. The shabby production, and the un-creative ways the filmmakers use their meager budget, squanders a lot of the promise that this unconventional story holds.
Surprisingly, the people behind The Last Ride weren't so much interested in presenting a historically accurate look at Hank Williams' final days (it even opens with a title card timidly explaining that "Most of what follows is true."). Rather, the film is a tender, nicely acted examination of two men at radically different stages in their lives - with much of the drama given over to talky interludes between Williams, played by Henry Thomas, and his driver Silas, played by Jesse James. Its well-intentioned message is often obliterated by cheap, lousy digital effects, however - so much so that what was likely intended as a road-trip Walk the Line ends up looking more like Birdemic with country music. "He's gotta be exaggerating," you're thinking - nope, it's that shoddy.
Since it's one of those pop culture events shrouded in an aura of mystery, the death of Hank Williams seems like a natural for a film adaptation. En route to a New Years Day 1953 concert in Ohio, Williams passed away in the back seat of a car, where his only company was the college student temporarily hired to drive him there under cold and rainy conditions. Although Williams was only 29 years old at the time, the popular musician was riddled with a number of health issues including heavy alcohol use and an undiagnosed case of spina bifida. Due to the sketchy circumstances of the cause of death and where it happened (at least two towns along the route claim themselves as the place where Williams drew his last breath), this is a story that lends itself to a fanciful retelling. The Last Ride does just that - changing names, moving around the chronology a bit, even fabricating a budding romance between the driver and a gas station attendant they meet along the way. The most radical re-imagining in the film (the kind of stuff that would make a country music purist cringe) comes with the many conversations depicted between Williams and his younger, less experienced driver.
The Last Ride picks up in Nashville during the days leading up to a well-booked New Years Eve concert, in which the handlers for a famous singer are desperately seeking a driver to safely take their client to that December 31st, 1952 show in Charleston, West Virginia. Their aim is to find someone who is clean and sober enough to not let their man get drunk before arrival - and they find their man in Silas (James), a 19 year-old mechanic. The archetypal country boy is assigned with transporting "Mr. Wells" (Thomas), a grizzled, been-there-done-that musician, to their destination in one piece. Mr. Wells is at first combative towards the younger man, but as the journey moves forward he starts to encourage Silas to live it up and break free of his restrictive surroundings. Of course, Mr. Wells does frequently dip into the alcohol, and the duo fail to make it to Charleston on time. Instead, Wells' gruff manager (Fred J. Thompson) instructs Silas to take Wells/Williams up to Ohio for another concert. Along the journey, Hank (who has revealed himself as the country star, despite Silas not knowing anything about current music) starts to wistfully notice something of himself and the innocence he long ago gave up in Silas. After stopping at a roadside gas station run by a pretty young woman who is preparing to permanently close up shop following the death of her father, Hank encourages Silas to ask the girl, Wanda (Kaley Cuoco), out on a date at the local honky tonk bar. Before Silas and Wanda get to ring in the New Year, however, Hank gets involved in a nasty brawl which compromises his already fragile health.
One some levels, The Last Ride should be lauded for trying something different. Attempting to do a modest, dialogue-driven period drama on a tiny budget comes with a host of challenges, but it seems like they took the easy way out at every turn. It abounds with anachronistic mistakes, and the digital production looks unforgivably cheesy (it makes one wonder how this would have fared had it been made in the '80s, when all indies were shot on celluloid). The filmmakers relied on digital effects to a crippling degree, whether it's conveying the harsh weather conditions on the trip with CGI snowdrifts and rainfall generated by a drop-down computer menu, or having the driving scenes mussed up with sterile indoor lighting and blurred background imagery (why do driving scenes shot in 2011 look more fake than those shot in 1951, by the way?). The digital production likely wouldn't be so noticeable in a contemporary-set film, but here they stick out like pork hors d'oeuvres at a Jewish potluck. Musically, the film uses none of Williams' original recordings and only a single vintage tune (Johnny Cash's "The Night Hank Williams Came To Town" plays over the end credits). Instead, much of the soundtrack is given over to modern cover versions of classic country songs, with varying levels of success.
As badly constructed as The Last Ride can get, the film is somewhat redeemed by the fine performances of the two lead actors. Henry Thomas' moody take on Hank Williams is far from the happy-go-lucky image the singer projected in hits like "Hey Good Lookin'." Instead, he's a cynic who is thoroughly burnt-out on booze and too many handlers. Thomas handles that aspect of the character well, but he's especially effective when Williams becomes more tender and nurturing as he bonds with Silas. Jesse James also does a good job of conveying Silas' innocence and disarming simplicity. The other cast members are fairly adequate, although Kaley Cuoco lacks the toughness and period flair to play someone like Wanda. Her lack of finesse almost comes across like she's doing Wanda as interpreted by Penny, the struggling actress she plays on The Big Bang Theory.
The Blu Ray:
Fox's Blu Ray edition of The Last Ride preserves the film's 1.78:1 picture in decent fashion. Light and dark levels are adequate, and the mastering is good, but the picture has that vaguely glassy look consistent with digitally produced films.
A spacious sounding English DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is the only audio option with the film, and it's a fine if not too showy mix. Dialogue is clear and the music is judiciously blended in.
The six minute featurette A Look Inside The Last Ride serves as the disc's sole extra. In it, Thomas, James and Cuoco speak about the film and the novelty of doing a '50s period piece - superficial stuff.
A mixture of musical biopic and reflective, dialogue-driven indie drama, The Last Ride speculates on what happened on the fateful final road trip taken by legendary Country & Western musician Hank Williams. While the film doesn't score any points for historic accuracy, there's some mildly diverting interplay between Henry Thomas as a grizzled Williams and Jesse James as the naive country boy hired to transport the soused star. A decent watch - spoiled by unforgivably awful, cheesy digital production (this is really low budget filmmaking, folks). Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.