I had some other duties I had to attend to today, including moderating a panel discussion on the West Memphis 3 and the media that Gerard got some footage of and will hopefully upload sometime soon, so here's a belated reaction to the festival's opening night film. Look for more coverage tonight, tomorrow and through the weekend.
If you're a part of the Arkansas film community, you'll probably want to see Harry Thomason's "The Last Ride." For one, it's a great primer on shooting a period road trip movie without leaving Pulaski County. You'll watch it like you're on a scavenger hunt: There's the covered bridge in Burns Park. There's downtown Argenta, even with brief glimpses of Cregeen's Irish Pub and Cornerstone Pub with Chris Denny's name on the marquee, standing in for downtown Knoxville, with North Little Rock City Hall doubling as a hotel. That's the bridge at the Old Mill that the main characters pee off of during a roadside bathroom break. And that's Cuz Fisher's, reborn briefly, for a diner scene. Also, you'll find plenty of familiar faces in the cast: Ray McKinnon, Natalie Canerday, Graham Gordy, David Bazzel, Gary Newton, Greg Spradlin, Jennifer Pierce and the late Rick Dial, just to name a few.
Otherwise, I can't think of any other reason to recommend this fictionalized take on the last days of Hank Williams. There's no character development. No conflict that's not formulaic. And the only action — some wild highway driving and a bar fight — looks like something out of a "Dukes of Hazzard" episode.
The film hinges on the relationship between Hank Williams (Henry Thomas) and Silas Combs (Jesse James), the clueless young mechanic hired to drive him to a series of concerts. Williams is ailing, drunk and ornery. Combs is fresh-faced and earnest. This is a formula you've seen before. But perhaps never this claustrophobically (most of the scenes take place in a Cadillac) with so little meaningful dialogue.
Here's the narrative arc, drawn from actual lines, or at least my memory of them (all are close): "You got a name, boy?" "You ever had a woman?" "I ain't never had a friend my whole life." "Are you my friend?"
I suspect I don't have to tell you what happens next.
Williams we're already invested in. We know that these are his final days, and just by trotting out an actor who bears passing resemblance and walks with a stiff back and plays drunk convincingly, the film reminds us of the sadness that comes with losing someone so talented at such a young age. The Combs character, based on the real life college student Hank Williams hired to drive him in his final days, exists in the film to humanize Williams. He needs little back story. But he can't merely be a dutiful cipher about whom next to nothing is revealed. For the film to work, we have to care about the character. But ultimately the role feels more like a device than any real person.
At the risk of piling on, many of the scenes in the car seem to be shot on green screen in a way that recalls '80s TV dramas (or Toonces the Driving Cat). And the plane sequence, based also on fact, surely warrants a spot in the pantheon of bad green screen scenes.
Obviously this was a low budget film. But if you don't have the money to do something right, why do it at all, particularly when it's not an integral part of the story?