I love Elizabeth Olsen. I’m just going to lead with that. She won me over with her powerful performance in the horror film Silent House and I’ve since seen almost every one of her movies, released both before and after that one. The films, themselves vary in quality but her performances never do. She is as good as anybody out there, right now, and should have earned an Oscar nomination (at the very least) for Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. Unlike her more famous (for now) twin sisters, she has trough-fulls of talent just oozing out of her every pore. Anytime she’s in a movie in 2016, I promise you that it’s showing up on this list.
I also like Tom Hiddleston. How can you not? He’s best known for redefining the Marvel character Loki for the mass audience and he did so brilliantly. He’s made other appearances, too, however (and his big “fans” don’t seem to follow him to those) and he, like Olsen, always delivers. So, going into I Saw the Light, I had no doubt that the principles in the cast would do their part. The movie, however, hasn’t been getting stellar reviews or word-of-mouth, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rest of it.
I also feel like I should say that I have no particular affinity for Hank Williams. I love music. I have a minor in music. But much of the old-fashioned country style always sounded like a mockery of music to me, and I never got into it. That includes Hank Williams. Before seeing this film, I couldn’t even name a single Hank Williams song. I assumed there was one called “I Saw the Light”, though (and I ended up recognizing that one and a couple of others, if that makes you feel any better). No, I wasn’t there for Hank Williams. I was there solely for Elizabeth Olsen.
And, as expected, Olsen and Hiddleston both deliver above and beyond what should be expected of them. Hiddleston transforms himself and simply inhabits the role as though possessed by the very soul of Hank Williams. Olsen effortlessly emotes and sells scenes that would be entirely disingenuous in lesser hands.
In fact, that’s one of the major problems with the film. Many important developments are told to us rather than shown to us and they’re told to us in scenes that are less important than the events that they’re delivering through exposition. This leads to a much bigger issue where the audience is watching major events transpire without any real context. There’s no build to these events so it’s hard to buy that they would be occurring. Not only is the groundwork not laid for these scenes but they occur so rapidly that there is often little to no time to adjust to the new status quo of the story before it’s shaken up yet again. And often, it changes entirely in a single scene.
That’s where the cast – especially Olsen and Hiddleston – save the film from becoming an unwatchable mess. They’re quite frankly so good at what they do that I would be sold on these senseless occurrences through the sheer power of their performances. Once through those moments, I would sometimes take a mental step out of the picture and realize that what I just saw had made no sense and could never truly transpire that way in reality. But Olsen and Hiddleston – in the moment – had tricked me. That’s how good they are.
Unfortunately, a talented cast can only do so much. There was no way for them fix the remaining structure problems that persist throughout the film. One important element of any quality film is the presence of narrative propulsion. Within fifteen minutes of the opening frame of any film, there should be some sort of conflict introduced into the story. And from that moment on, there should always be something left unresolved until the final few minutes of the film. If there’s nothing unresolved at any point in a movie, why should it continue? I found myself wondering that about halfway through this movie. The last half of the movie is practically no more than a series of events that aren’t building towards any sort of climax. Even a story that’s based on true events needs to be constructed in such a way that there is always something for the audience to be waiting for. That is painfully lacking in I Saw the Light. So, I just immersed myself in the cast and tried to let them take me away.
Seeing as how this film is based on Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, perhaps the film just tries to take on too much of the book. My suggestion would have been to try to focus on either his career or his personal life, only touching on both when they naturally intersected. Instead, the story tried to cover both his career and personal life in their entirety. This is fine for a book. But films are much more restricted in terms of time and narrative execution and so trying to cram everything into a couple of hours results in nothing carrying much weight and we get the dreaded Seinfeld “Yadda Yadda” effect much too often. In addition to that, perhaps only covering one period of his life would have been a more practical approach. By trying to shoehorn everything in, the film often finds itself spending only a few minutes on a given year before jumping five or so years into the future. That creates a jarring effect that doesn’t allow the audience to get comfortable with the characters.
There’s a good movie somewhere in I Saw the Light. But writer/director Marc Abraham just overshot. Despite the fact that the story is a greatest-hits hodgepodge of events that carry little weight on their own while not allowing any time for gravitas, Hiddleston and Olsen bring that gravitas, themselves, and almost elevate the film into a higher class all on their own. If you’re a fan of either or both of them (and why wouldn’t you be? JEALOUS?), this one is still probably worth a look. Those two bring the goods. Otherwise, this could have been a Lifetime Channel biography. It has great aspirations but ultimately suffers from a lack of perspective.