Hank Williams logged chart-topping hits titled “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I’m So Tired of It All,” and “I Don’t Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes),” but it would take only the most literal-minded thinker, or the least empathetic storyteller, to assume that the country singer never derived any joy from life. Writer-director Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light, a dull dirge with scant interest in Williams beyond his reputation as a tormented artist, does just that.
The film opens with Williams (Tom Hiddleston) and his fiancé, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), exchanging marital vows inside an Alabama gas station as a rainstorm rages portentously outside, and concludes shortly after the beleaguered singer is escorted to a show in a hearse-like Oldsmobile, his death coming in the ellipsis generated before the next shot. In between, there are glimpses at Williams’s botched personal relationships, drug and alcohol use, and the kind of artfully timed coughing that still manages to sneak into screenplays as a leaden sign of someone’s imminent demise.
Of course, this being a biopic in the most hackneyed mold, meaning one whose every scene is dictated by a slavish subservience to biography at the expense of psychological exploration or aesthetic experimentation, I Saw the Light also features various musical performances of Williams’s most famous ditties. Some play out in Bible Belt recording studios, where typically cantankerous producers incite contractual quarrels, and others occur under golden stage lights, with hypnotized audiences singing along (look closely, though, and the extras in the crowd seem shaky on the lyrics).
Rarely, however, does the film evince the pleasure Williams took in performing music. Whether he’s scanning the auditorium for his next one-night stand, visibly fuming over a sarcastic remark delivered by a bandmate prior to the count off, or wading into cryptic pre-song banter while drifting off in a morphine-induced high, the performances scan as perfunctory stop gaps between the contrived depictions of a troubled man’s descent into oblivion.
Moreover, Abraham takes Williams at his word that songwriting’s “just what I do,” capturing his labor with a utilitarian blandness that turns even an ostensibly career-changing debut concert at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry into a monotonous montage of medium shots and gliding full-band views—the resulting look something like that of an archival episode of MTV Unplugged. To Abraham’s credit, his unflashy style of coverage, which downplays the crowd and tends toward leisurely cutting rhythms, is based in a respect for Hiddleston’s physicality, for his spot-on approximation of Williams’s hunky-dory hip bounce and machine-like strumming arm. Even if his croon is a bit too polished to pass for Williams’s nasally wail, the actor gets most of the details right, from the country singer’s bashful smile and Southern drawl to the revealing ways in which he’d tip and lower the brim of his cowboy hat.
Still, I Saw the Light is a flaccidly directed film that basks for two hours in a carefully art-designed simulation of the past and doesn’t come away with a single memorable image. Abraham largely follows a linear timeline of Williams’s rise and fall, occasionally indulging the reminiscences of the singer’s publisher, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford)—expositional filler that’s shot in a faux-documentary 4:3 frame and touched up with an unconvincing celluloid patina. The filmmaker, already starved for a singular sense of rhythm as he stumbles into one cliché after another, generally can only muster a drowsy dissolve when it’s time for a scene to end. In other cases, Hiddleston just directs his gaze blankly off screen, a theatrical gesture that registers mostly as the film stalling in order to figure out where to go next. Unfortunately, I Saw The Light never collects itself in such moments and redirects down a path worthy of the multifaceted legend at its center.