Writer/director Marc Abraham's life-of-the-legend drag I Saw the Light (starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen) makes no big deal of Hank Williams' songs, or their composition, or of what hard study of Americans more and vernacular it would take to craft them. It suffers, I expect, from Hollywood's post-Walk Hard fear of committing to howler clichés in the musician biopic. Jake Kasdan's towering 2007 comedy stands as one of the most consequential works of film criticism in the last 10 years: It killed dead the genre it parodied. Abraham eschews not just cliché but also context and even meaning. Hank never exhibits any religion, and he never walks the straight-and-narrow, but the film ends with a communal singalong of "I Saw the Light," a song vowing a life of joyous Christian piety. How did Hank come to write it? What did he feel about not living up to it?
The film that bears that song's title does nothing to earn it. It's like Abraham is only dramatizing the first line: "I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin." Hiddleston grows gaunt and wild-eyed as the film passes. I found him more convincing in the late reels, when he's turned mean and antsy after Audrey has left him and he's bouncing between potential next wives. The second of Abraham's ideas seems to be that, without Audrey to tend to him, Hank became ever more lost. But he'd never be so gauche as to have a character say that out loud, just as he won't show us Hank discovering that his music reaches people.