“Rudderless” plays familiar tunes we have heard before. Devastated by a sudden tragedy which turns his life upside down, its hero lets his life drifted away aimlessly as trying to look away from his personal grief, but then he gets an unexpected chance to come out of his shell. This is a typical character drama about grief and sadness followed by feel-good healing process, but the movie handles its story with enough care and sensitivity, and it is also supported well by its good music to enjoy.
When Sam (Billy Crudup) calls his son Josh (Miles Heizer) during one afternoon, he never imagines that will be the last conversation with his son. When he is waiting for Josh at a place near the campus where Josh currently studies, he sees a TV news report on an incident which has just happened in the campus, and he and his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) soon find themselves overwhelmed by not only their son’s tragic death but also the shocking circumstance surrounding it.
As he agonizes over why that terrible incident happened, Sam’s life and career are quickly flung into downward spiral mainly due to his heavy drinking. Two years later, he is living alone on a big sailboat anchored in a lake, and now he works as a daily worker painting houses. He still drinks a lot whenever he can, and that certainly does not make him look good to his annoyed employer or Alaird (Peter Spruyt), a fastidious local administrator who is not so pleased about Sam’s frequent careless behaviors including public urination.
On one day, Emily, who has been trying to make a new start unlike her ex-husband, visits Sam for his agreement on selling their house. Before leaving, she gives him several things belonging to Josh, including his guitar and demo CDs. He does not want them at first, but he eventually takes them into his boat, and he begins listen to the songs written and performed by his son. It is clear that Josh had considerable talent in music, and, after some practice, Sam comes to perform one of Josh’s songs at a local bar where amateur musicians can freely perform their music in front of bar customers.
Although Sam’s earnest performance does not make much impression on the audiences, he happens to draw the attention of a young aspiring musician named Quentin (Anton Yelchin). He senses something special from the song and Sam’s performance, and he wants to know whether Sam has other songs. Sam is understandably reluctant at first, but, mainly because of Quentin’s persistence, he comes to share his son’s songs with Quentin while not telling him who actually wrote them.
As they spend more time together, we get a series of conventional scenes easily expected from its genre. Quentin and Sam form a band along with Quentin’s several friends, and they are also helped by Dell (Laurence Fishburne), the no-nonsense owner of a local music supply shop who is planning to sell his store and enjoy his retirement life with his wife. Not so surprisingly, their first official band performance gets lots of positive responses, and Quentin is happy to get a breakthrough he has yearned for, but Sam keeps wondering whether this is good or not. As getting to know a little more about Quentin and his rather unhappy life, Sam becomes a sort of mentor figure to this young man who reminds him a lot of Josh, but the truth behind the songs still remains a secret he keeps to himself as the popularity of their band is rapidly increased through word of mouth.
The screenplay by Jeff Robinson and Casey Twenter becomes more predictable and contrived during its third act, but the director William H. Macy, who also plays a minor supporting character in his film, keeps the low-key tone of his film intact under his competent direction. There are several parts which do not work as well as intended (the supporting character played by Selena Gomez is more or less than a plot device, for instance), but they are mostly compensated by small nice character moments which feel intimate and sincere while accompanied with mild humor at times. The main songs written by Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus are effective as a crucial part of the story, and the music performance scenes in the film are handled well with an appropriate amount of realism and spirit.
While performing the songs for themselves, Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin are credible in their acting. Usually looking laid-back in the film, Crudup gives a nuanced performance as a man tentatively groping for the possible way to deal with his unresolved grief, and Yelchin, who will probably follow the footsteps of Brad Dourif and other offbeat character actors, is suitably cast as a shy, awkward young man unsure about his own talent. The development of Sam’s relationship with Quentin is both engaging and convincing thanks to Crudup and Yelchin, and that is the main reason why their certain scene around the finale works even though we can clearly see it coming from miles away.
Like many of you, I noticed William H. Macy for the first time through his Oscar-nominated turn in “Fargo” (1996). Since that film and “Air Force One” (1997), I have constantly been impressed by this talented character actor who provided many wonderful performances in various films including “Magnolia” (1999), “The Cooler” (2003), “Cellular” (2004), “Thank You for Smoking” (2006) and “The Sessions” (2012). “Rudderless” is a modest mix of character drama and music film, but Macy did a fairly good job here as a first-time director, and this is surely a solid start regardless of whatever will come next in his nascent filmmaking career. As I said, the tunes are familiar indeed, but the movie plays them well.