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I Saw the Light

Time for another fun-filled edition of “How the hell did this go wrong?”

Today’s movie is I Saw the Light, a highly anticipated biopic of the legendary Hank Williams, with a cast headlined by such incredible talents as Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. Yet as of this writing, the film has a pathetic 16 percent Tomatometer. How could a movie with so much potential fail so hard? Well, I can tell you how. And sadly, it’s a depressingly common problem with biopics: cramming too much story into too little screentime.

The film begins with Hank Williams’ marriage to Audrey Sheppard Williams (respectively played by Hiddleston and Olsen) in 1944, and it ends with Hank’s death in 1953. That’s nine years in two hours. In theory, that shouldn’t be a problem — considering that most biopics try and fail to encompass several decades in as much time, nine years sounds manageable. But in practice, the film tries to cram in two marriages, three pregnancies (one of them aborted), a separation, a divorce, the numerous women he slept with, and that’s just his love life. Then there’s the stuff about his rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, his overbearing mother, his chronic spinal deformity, and the various failed attempts at getting sober. All of this in addition to Williams’ meteoric rise to superstardom with all the highs and lows of his career.

The pacing is so far over the map that it’s borderline impossible to keep track of who’s doing what and why. Important plot developments just instantly happen with virtually no set up, and with no establishment for the characters’ motivations, so landmark events don’t resonate nearly as well as they should. There are so many storylines going on at once that the whole movie is unfocused, leaving us with half a dozen barely existent themes instead of one strongly defined aspect of Williams’ life to leave us thinking about. Last but not least, because the characters’ motivations are barely defined, the characters themselves feel very thinly developed.

Let’s get back to basics here: A biopic lives and dies on how its subject is humanised. The entire point of any biopic is to let us see the person behind the history, to show us why the subject was moved to accomplish something and how those accomplishments affected the subject. And writer/director  Marc Abraham simply could not pass this test. Though to be fair, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.

The musical numbers in this film are undeniably stellar. Tom Hiddleston puts in a performance worthy of a much better film, ditto for Elizabeth Olsen. Couple that with the filmmakers’ clear desire to shoehorn in as much of Williams’ brief career as they possibly could, and it’s clear that everyone behind the scenes had tremendous affection for the subject. Alas, the filmmakers are so incapable of articulating Hank Williams’ importance that they fail to craft a sufficiently moving portrait of the man. Indeed, the storytelling is so inert and ill-crafted that when Williams finally died, I left the theater feeling absolutely nothing.

From start to finish, the visuals and editing are proof that sophomore director Marc Abraham is woefully far out of his depth. My personal favorite case in point concerns a scene in which Hank Williams is talking to his wife in a car. Except that we can’t see him, and none of the other characters give any sign to show where he is. We hear Williams talking and he doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the car. It isn’t until two cuts later that we see Hank reclining in the back seat with his head in his wife’s lap. It seriously took that long for the director to establish where the speaking characters were in the scene. How far back in film school do we have to go, seriously?

I Saw the Light is a film directed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and edited with the precision of a chainsaw. I commend the filmmakers for their ambition and heart, but that counts for nothing when the film can’t manage the basic task of developing its characters into fleshed-out human beings, and the pacing is so rushed that the whole plot falls apart. Hiddleston and Olsen both put in valiant efforts to salvage the film, but their characters are so thinly developed that they’re both left spinning their wheels.

The musical numbers are by far the best part of this film, but even that’s not enough to merit a recommendation. If you’re that big a fan of Hank Williams, there’s no reason to watch Tom Hiddleston imitate the man when you could just listen to Williams’ own recordings instead.

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