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The Independent Critic

Henry Thomas, Jesse James, Kaley Cuoco, Fred Dalton Thompson, Stephen Tobolosky, Ray McKinnon
Harry Thomason
Howie Klausner, Dub Cornett
105 Mins.
Live Bait Entertainment/Mozark Productions

 "The Last Ride" Review 
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"I'm not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow
'Cause nothin's ever gonna be alright nohow
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive,"
                               Hank Williams Sr.

By the time Hank Williams Sr. died at the age of 29, he was a burned out and used up musical legend whose chronic health issues intertwined with his many personal vices to cut short a career that had begun at the age of 14 when he was hired to host a 15-minute radio program on WSFA Radio. It wasn't long, however, before Williams began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs for the chronic pain caused by the birth defect spina bifida. Despite quickly becoming a household name in music, Williams seemed to even more quickly become known as undependable, temperamental and unpredictable due to his excessive drinking and partying ways.

The Last Ride, directed by Harry Thomason (television producer of Designing Women and other shows), is about the little known journey that Hank took, his last ride, on December 31st, 1952 and ending with his death on January 1st, 1953 with a young man the film names Silas serving as his driver.

An Official Selection of the Homegrown Hoosier Film Festival this past weekend in Anderson, Indiana due to producer Benjy Gaither's Indiana roots, The Last Ride is a mesmerizing and beautiful film about a man whose impact on country music, indeed all music, remains undeniable.

In the film, Silas (Jesse James, The Butterfly Effect) is an under-achieving gas station attendant with an a**hole of a boss who finds himself hired to drive the rather mysterious "Mr. Wells" down to West Virginia. He's given the simple instructions "Don't let him drink," instructions that disintegrate amidst the strong will of a hard-living musician aware that his days are numbered. Mr. Wells, aka Luke the Drifter and, of course, ultimately known as Hank Williams Sr. (Henry Thomas, E.T. & 11:14) spends most of that ride sitting in the back of his powder blue 1952 Cadillac as Silas drives him through the Appalachian countryside that seems to bring the weary musician what little sense of peace he's able to find after such a successful yet very hard-lived life.

For those familiar with the fullness of Williams's life, not just the two broken marriages and abused substances, The Last Ride is a poignant reminder of both the glory and the sadness of Hank's life. It is also, one must acknowledge, not just about Hank's life but, perhaps even moreso, about the young man who served as his driver over the course of his final days. Williams had long minimized his health issues to the point that for years "spina bifida" was just a rumor or a possibility, but what could not be denied over the course of his 29 years was the impact of his drinking, drugging and fits of anger. After two broken marriages and years of hard partying and issues with anger, Williams had become a reclusive and lonely man with no connection to the world that had absorbed his talent and taken it for all it was worth.

Henry Thomas gives his best performance in quite some time as Hank, exuding both the charismatic brilliance that drew audiences in and the self-destructive impulsivity that made his world collapse. Thomas embodies Hank, even capturing the slight rigidity and occasional spasticity associated with Hank's health issues while never turning him into a self-pitying victim. Hank may have, at least on some level, self destructed but he ultimately never wallowed in the world that he'd created. His interactions with Silas are sparse and devoid of unnecessary histrionics, their semblance of friendship borne out of a relaxed authenticity that is heartbreakingly beautiful because it feels so incredibly real.

Jesse James, as Silas, is on the other end of the success spectrum. He has felt trapped in this gas station and, when questioned, essentially states that he has no dreams. It's no so much that he's lacking in ambition, but rather that he's so incredibly repressed that he simply accepts like "as is." He is completely unlike his mysterious passenger, yet in many ways they are exactly alike. James matches Thomas's understated performance with an almost meditative type quality fits perfectly into the fabric of the film's slight dialogue and poetic scenery. He is at his most electric when he encounters Wanda (Kaley Cuoco) along the way, she too seemingly slaving away at a gas station with a sort of weathered dullness masking remarkable beauty.

Director Harry Thomason clearly feels the script's almost lyrical like qualities. Co-penned by Howard Klausner and Dub Cornett, The Last Ride says so much and yet, quite often, chooses to allow the images, sounds, music and relationships to say what mere words can't possibly verbalize. D.P. James W. Roberson's camera work is beautiful to behold, giving the Appalachian journey a spiritual significance that does justice to both the location and to its impact in these moments in Hank and Silas's lives. Kudos as well for the film's remarkably resonant soundtrack along with an excellent production design from Dwight Jackson and costume design from Doug Hall.

There are brief, minor moments that don't quite register the impact that one might hope given how mesmerizing the vast majority of the film remains. For example, a brief flying scene feels a touch disjointed and out of sync with the rest of the film in both impact on its characters and how it illustrates the film's more modest tech budget. While Thomason does a remarkable job of keeping the modestly budgeted film period accurate, there are a couple of brief moments where you go "That's not right." However, it's important to note that these minor quibbles don't come close to distracting from the film's emotional resonance and lasting impact.

It would be foolish to simply refer to The Last Ride as a Hank Williams Sr. film, despite the fact that the film is so centrally concerned with the last days in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer's life. The Last Ride is much more a contemplative cinematic journey about friendship, hope, life, death and, when it comes down to it, redemption.

The Last Ride is a beautiful film about an unforgettable journey involving two men, one of whom never got the chance to realize his beauty and the other whose journey of self-discovery had just begun.

The Last Ride begins a limited nationwide run in Arkansas and Louisiana on October 21, 2011. If there's any justice, it will expand nationwide.

For more information on The Last Ride, visit The Last Ride website.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic