Film Review – Rudderless
Director William H. Macy‘s Rudderless has a title that opens itself to a lot of bad jokes: “Never has a title and film’s plot been so in sync,” “This film just flows along’” etc. That aside, there are a lot of things that keep this film moving without making any real connections. Sam (Billy Crudup), a successful advertising executive, calls up his college age son Josh (Miles Heizer) wanting to go out and celebrate an account he just got his firm. After waiting for his son to show up at the restaurant he sees news on the TV about a shooting at his son’s college. After a quick time dealing with the funeral and a brief scene with Josh’s girlfriend Kate (Selena Gomez), we cut ahead a few years to see that Sam has fallen apart completely. He is living on a boat, paints houses for a living, and spends the rest of his time getting drunk.
A change comes when his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off their son’s music stuff. Sam discovers Josh wrote and recorded several songs, so he starts to listen and practice them and performs at a bar’s open mic night. A twenty-something Quentin (Anton Yelchin) hears a song he is very moved by and wants to get it heard. More specifically he wants Sam to play it with him. Sam resists but Quentin’s earnestness and Sam’s desire to get Quentin to shut up about it makes Sam eventually capitulate.
Like Quentin, there is an earnestness to what the film is trying to do here. Sam and Quentin start to play more songs, add more band members and begin to get a following, ending in the group being made the house band at the bar where they played the first night. While Sam is still rude and sarcastic, he does try to help Quentin out in some small ways. Quentin plays the surrogate son role and Sam starts helping Quentin impress some ladies in the bar and shows him how to dress better. The music is helping Sam connect with his dead son and also giving him something to do with his life.
This all feels very pat though; we know a lot of the beats that this film is going through and it is impossible not to feel like we are waiting for these lessons to happen. We even have the older wise man character with Del (Lawrence Fishburne) playing a music store owner who mentions to Sam how he is helping Quentin. This all takes a really long time to get going–it was almost thirty minutes in when Sam and Quentin start to play together. While that time sets up Sam’s descent into grief and denial there isn’t much revelation about Sam as a person. We know he is haunted and abrasive but there is nothing else to him. He is less a character and more a set of ideas that, while they fit the story fine, don’t make him compelling to watch. The same is true of Quentin. He does earnest loser nicely, we are given hints of some of his past problems and, while I am glad the movie didn’t dwell there, he still doesn’t have anything to make him stand out.
Macy’s direction is fine, he has some nice montage sequences that give us things to watch when the actors are performing a song and makes things just interesting enough to keep us watching but there is nothing exceptional. The music choices, the singers, the lyrics, the melody–all of it is really quite good. The songs are easy to get into and have a feeling behind them that makes them fun but they also easily fade into the background. The acting overall is solid with no one being bad but no one really stands out. Fishburn was my favorite but I like him in most things. He brings a presence to the screen, but he is doing his wise but sarcastic guy persona which is always fun is but is something he can do with ease.
Momentum throughout is slow as we move at a calm pace with okay direction and solid acting but it lacks a real hook.The one thing we are left to wonder about is when will the truth come out that Sam didn’t write the songs and what impact that will have. This seemed to be not that big of a deal even if it was revealed, yet details come to light about the songs’ history that changes how they are perceived. While this raises the stakes and changes a lot of what we knew it still didn’t help the film move beyond its limitations story wise or make these characters’ arcs and issues become more important or interesting.
This is a film you can sense thinks it is in the right place trying to make us see how people deal with tragedy. The attempt is an interesting idea–connecting through music from those you have lost. Yet the film places too much emphasis on this theme and fails to provide the characters and story the amount of development to give the idea the importance that it deserves.