Directed by William H. Macy
Written by William H. Macy, Casey Twenter, & Jeff Robison
Starring Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Laurence Fishburne, Selena Gomez, and Miles Heizer
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Venerated actor William H. Macy’s directorial debut ‘Rudderless’ isn’t always a smooth narrative ride, but Macy has crafted a moving portrait of grief and catharsis, finding moments of poignancy, humor, and beauty in emotionally weighty material. The film, about a grieving father who uses music to cope with his son’s death, could have been depressing and maudlin. But Rudderless sidesteps this landmine through the consistent humor of Macy’s script, which he co-wrote with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, and the film’s vibrant, crisply edited musical set pieces, shot with flare by Macy and cinematographer Eric Lin.
Macy’s directorial style is solid and fluid. But the best decision he makes is letting his star Billy Crudup do the heavy lifting. Crudup steals the film, anchoring the story and elevating every scene with his restrained yet palpably emotive powerhouse performance. If the script is at times underwritten, asking the audience to fill in key details that aren’t clearly conveyed on screen, Crudup overcomes this by conveying floods of despair and conflicting emotions roiling just beneath his aloof exterior.
The film opens on artistic, socially awkward college freshman Josh (Miles Heizer), alone in his dorm room, singing and composing a catchy demo tape of his hilariously self-deprecating song, “I’m an Asshole.” Josh tries to concentrate on his music, endeavoring and failing to tune out the debauched college atmosphere raging outside his door.
Meanwhile, Josh’s dad, dynamite adman Sam (Crudup), wows and woos a bigtime client with his Don Draper-patterned oratory. Sam wants to celebrate with his son, but Josh blows him off – not with any malice really, just apathy and more important things to do.
The next thing Sam knows, a news report pops on TV and hits him with every parent’s worst nightmare: Josh has died in a school shooting, along with six other students. Overwhelmed by trauma and media attention, Sam swiftly descends into alcoholic dysfunction and tears down the pillars of his cushy life with a wrecking ball. Two years later, Sam is a listless alcoholic doing part-time manual labor, living on a boat, bathing once a week in a public shower, and horrifying the uptight locals by peeing into the ocean in full view of their dockside children.
Sam’s drunken, detached, lay-about lifestyle isn’t really living; it’s hiding, as his estranged, but concerned ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) points out. Unlike Sam, Emily has managed to move on with her life, including a new husband and child. When Emily brings Sam boxes of Josh’s belongings, which she’s finally ready to let go of, Sam’s instinct is to toss the boxes in the trash rather than open up old wounds. But something catches his eye: Josh’s lyric book and demo tapes. Sam and Josh had shared a passion for music, yet Sam had no idea these songs existed.
Sam listens to the tapes over and over as a way to connect with Josh. Sam eventually teaches himself one of the songs and takes it for a test drive at a local open mic night, not daring to mention the song was written by his dead son. The song is well-written, but more importantly, Sam’s rendition is gentle, emotive, and powerful. Aspiring young musician Quentin (Anton Yelchin) falls instantly in love with Sam’s song and follows him home like a puppy dog, hoping to partner up on Sam’s music. Sam initially says no, but Quentin badgers him incessantly, and Sam is ultimately having too much fun playing Josh’s music to turn Quentin down.
Sam and Quentin become a hit at Sam’s favorite bar, The Trill, playing a handful of Josh’s songs. Sam remains coy and evasive whenever Quentin asks how he comes up with the songs. Quentin brings a couple musician pals aboard to help fill out the instrumentals and harmonies of Josh’s songs, and lo and behold, Sam finds himself the songwriter and lead singer of a garage band called “Rudderless,” with a rapidly growing local fan-base and a standing Saturday night gig at The Trill.
As the band grows artistically, Sam finally begins to deal with his grief about his son’s death, both through Josh’s music and his burgeoning paternal bond with Quentin. Quentin, who comes from poverty and has never had a competent parental figure, is happy to have someone in his life who has finally taken an interest, even if he doesn’t know the man is using him as a surrogate for his dead son.
Macy has coaxed a wide range of performances from his actors. Huffman is solid as Sam’s ex-wife, exuding sympathetic vulnerability and underlying strength. Laurence Fishburne is charismatic and charmingly grumpy as a wise music shop owner who befriends Sam and Quentin. But not all of the film’s supporting performances are as strong as Fishburne and Huffman’s. As Quentin, Anton Yelchin is charming and funny, and has clear chemistry with Crudup, but he doesn’t powerfully emote or elevate his underwritten character. Selena Gomez comes off as unsympathetic and vindictive as Josh’s ex-girlfriend Kate, who periodically pops her head into frame to pass judgment on the manner in which Sam grieves for his son. Admittedly, this is a thankless character to play, but Gomez doesn’t do the part many favors with her acidic line deliveries. Peter Spruyt struggles with an equally thankless task in the film’s worst subplot. Spruyt plays obnoxious, dockside rule-stickler Alaird (Spruyt), who puts a crimp in Sam’s detached, laidback lifestyle. Spruyt’s broadly obnoxious performance makes sure that Alaird’s entirely reasonable requests – like asking Sam to keep his dingus hidden from young children – sound uptight and outrageous.
But ultimately, Crudup is the gravitational core of the film’s universe, and he holds the screen with magnetism and searing, multilayered
pain. The best part of Crudup’s performance is its subtlety. Sam is not a histrionic character erupting in fits of anger and tears. Quite the opposite: Sam’s surface-level aloofness is what stops other characters in the film from realizing what he’s going through. Crudup’s ability to convey two emotional realities simultaneously – the detached façade Sam wears to fool others and the unbearable grief bubbling underneath – is what prevents Rudderless from becoming saccharine and allows Sam’s hard-earned 3rd-act scenes of open emotion to land with devastating force.
Macy directs the musical set pieces with verve and panache, swiveling his camera from performer to crowd and back again, as the image swerves to the beat of the catchy, up-tempo music. In one energetic scene, Sam and Quentin impress a pair of attractive schoolteachers by performing a rousing arrangement of “Wheels on the Bus.” Their rocked-out rendition of the schoolyard classic is so infectious that the boisterous crowd sings along and leaps up and down like it’s a stadium concert. The original music performed by Rudderless – composed by songwriters Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus – is catchy and evocative.
It’s impossible to fully discuss “Rudderless” without mentioning its jarring, sledgehammer 3rd act twist, which vitally informs the film’s themes, characters, and plot. The twist is bound to alienate some viewers, because it asks them to feel empathy in circumstances where their more instinctive reaction might be outrage or judgment. Suffice it to say, whether or not you’re willing to roll with this twist will significantly impact your overall experience of the film. I went with the twist. While it could have been handled more gracefully – perhaps a couple of flashbacks might have made the moment of revelation more organic by filling in some crucial backstory – the twist also enriches the film, deepens its themes, and opens up a host of thought-provoking questions.
“Rudderless” isn’t perfect. Quentin is underdeveloped: he’s a strong foil for Sam, but thinly fleshed-out and broad as a character in his own right. The goofy Sam vs. Alaird subplot is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film, and sturdier groundwork could’ve been laid for the film’s provocative 3rd act. But the film overcomes these flaws on the strengths of its leading man, original music, and already polished 1st time feature director. With “Rudderless,” Macy has created a heartfelt study of grief infused with humor, pain, and hope.
— Jason Teich