Bearing all the hallmarks of a small-budget labor of love, “The Last Ride” is a leisurely paced but modestly engaging road trip that gets considerable mileage from the byplay between its two lead characters: country-music great Hank Williams, persuasively played by Henry Thomas as a feisty reprobate ravaged by illness and self-indulgence, and small-town naif Silas (Jesse James), who’s hired as driver for the ailing superstar during the final days of 1952. Pic doubtless will sell more soundtrack CDs than firstrun admission tickets, but could connect with Williams devotees as homevid fare.
Given the portentous title, even viewers unfamiliar with the real-life events that inspired the fictionalized script by Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett will know from the start where this indie drama is going and what will happen when it gets there. (An opening onscreen title notes: “Most of what follows is true.”) Still, helmer Harry Thomason is able to sustain interest in the predictable scenario by focusing on the slowly evolving relationship between mismatched traveling companions.
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As Williams (who identifies himself throughout the pic only by aliases “Luke” or “Mr. Wells”), Thomas shrewdly underplays a part that easily could have brought out the hambone in a lesser thesp. Ashen-faced, unsteady of step and given to violent coughing fits, he comes across as a battered wreck who’s ambulatory only through sheer force of will. At the same time, however, Thomas conveys enough vigorous sass and intimidating authority to make it clear that, even if Williams is going to hell in a hand basket — or, to be more specific, a powder-blue Cadillac Eldorado — he’ll damn sure set the course and enjoy the trip. (It should be noted that the real Hank Williams was 29 at the time the pic takes place but, by all reports, looked even older than Thomas does here.)
Silas, an unhappily employed mechanic, impulsively pounces on the job opportunity when a stranger (Ray McKinnon) offers cash to anyone willing to drive “Mr. Wells” from Montgomery, Ala., to stops in West Virginia and Ohio. Trouble is, Silas, who doesn’t know his passenger’s true identity, is almost laughably ill equipped to fulfill another requirement of the job. Charged with keeping Wells clean and sober, he can only look on helplessly as the fading hellraiser seizes every opportunity to imbibe.
Despite the presence of McKinnon and other supporting players — most notably, Fred Dalton Thompson as Williams’ stressed manager and Kaley Cuoco as Silas’ fleeting romantic interest — “The Last Ride” is, for all practical purposes, a two-hander. Thomas is unquestionably the star of the piece, but James is more than adequate as the callow but good-hearted foil who slowly gains Williams’ respect and friendship.
Production values suggest the filmmakers had ready access to period-appropriate props, costumes and locations (the pic was shot entirely in Arkansas) but lacked a budget for anything more than rudimentary special effects. Thomas isn’t called upon to sing, and there are no Hank Williams recordings on the soundtrack. But other artists — including Jett Williams, Hank’s daughter — can be heard singing Williams compositions, and Johnny Cash’s rendition of “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” is effectively employed during the closing credits.