The death of country-music icon Hank Williams is a strange, sad episode in American pop culture that could have served as the foundation for a bracing anti-hagiography in the tradition of Ron Shelton's severely underrated Cobb. On New Year's Day in 1953, Williams died in the back of his blue Cadillac while en route to play a show in Ohio after missing a concert in West Virginia due to issues of weather and his own well-documented bad behavior. Williams's driver, a college student by the name of Charles Carr, was in a gas station at the time. The singer-songwriter's death, still a source of mystery and controversy, is an unsettlingly puny conclusion to the life of a man who pioneered the American conception of country music, as well as a testament to all sorts of uncomfortable facets of life, namely its frailty and absurdity.
Alas, The Last Ride isn't a bracing anti-hagiography in the tradition of Cobb. The film is awash in hero worship, and it reduces a brilliant, disturbing life to fodder for yet another phony story of a young man learning a few important life lessons. Carr, inexplicably called Silas here, is played by the aggressively dull young actor Jesse James as one of those naïve, young goody-goodies who always grace artless coming-of-age movies. Silas learns that Williams, who goes by the traveling name Mr. Wells, is a complicated man who is—surprise!—a softie underneath his rudeness and tormented drunkenness. The Last Ride is a typical wax-museum reproduction of the American South in which every detail is Southern in bold all caps, and not a single scene over the course of the film's 102 minutes rings true. Scent of a Woman, which this film occasionally resembles, is a complicated work of irresolvable neo-realism by comparison.
As Williams, Henry Thomas, an expressive, intelligent actor most famous for playing Elliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, does some fine work anyway. Thomas, a handsome man with a still somewhat boyish face, suggests Williams's hard living primarily with his eyes, which often convey the bitterness and deep melancholy of a wild man who was probably intentionally courting death on some level. Thomas doesn't sentimentalize the character, and he underplays the script's worst moments, particularly the final scene, which is moving despite the obvious writing that fictionalizes the singer's supposed last words in a desperate bid for pathos and thematic neatness. Thomas is willing to explore this tale's dark side, but he's trapped in a movie that would fit in perfectly with the pabulum that regularly plays on the Hallmark Channel.