Actor William H. Macy shows poise and polish in turning a complex character study into his directorial debut.
That distinctive imprint left when music and movies combine, improving not just one but also the other, can manifest in many ways. Sometimes it comes from a strong score or soundtrack. At other times, it arises from music-oriented subject matter. Occasionally, it radiates from something more instinctual, reflecting the role audio can play in shaping moods and worldviews.
Rudderless endeavours to demonstrate all three within the context of a well-worn, sensitively heightened scenario: the aftermath of a tragedy. The film's protagonist, Sam Manning (Billy Crudup, Blood Ties), is cast adrift when his teenage son, Josh (Miles Heizer, TV's Parenthood), is killed. In an overly literal sense, Sam begins living on a boat after drinking away his high-flying advertising job. Just as plainly in relation to the feature's title, he clearly lacks direction. Emotionally yet still as visibly, he's restless – and unwilling to face his grief even two years later.
Then, Sam receives a box of Josh's belongings from his ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman, Trust Me), including a guitar, scribbled lyrics and recordings of songs written before he died. After listening to the angst-fuelled tracks and singing one – passing it off as his own – in a local bar, he inspires the interest of enthusiastic, aspiring indie rocker, Quentin (Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive). A musical collaboration follows, as does modest success. Yet, Sam remains a man in search of true solace, still struggling with the reality of his loss and its repercussions.
In the manner of the majority of films that spring from mourning, Rudderless concerns it's running time with coping, though its focus extends beyond the obvious issues kicked up in the swell of sadness and solemnity. Coming face to face with mortality is less the feature's concern, nor is outliving a child, however much it might seem as though the narrative is headed for that familiar, tear-jerking territory in its catharsis through music plot. Instead, it is the soberly handled topic of moving forward into the embrace of harsh truths, accepting difficulties rather than overcoming them, that gives the feature its poignancy and makes its soundtrack linger.
Alongside the thoughtful contemplation of trickier terrain than usual, as aptly conveyed through increasingly moody tunes, sits just as considerate performances. The film's lead as well as its anchor, Crudup looks as enlivened on stage as he does conflicted off it, with his the guiding hand that helps the movie weather material far darker – yet hardly hidden – than its songs first intimate. Laurence Fishburne (Ride Along) also adds a grounded sense of gravitas, the feature's other best player in a small but crucial part. Though Selena Gomez (Getaway) graces the cast as well, hers is a role of advancing the story, rather than its complicated sentiment.
After almost four decades as an actor in everything from Fargo to Jurassic Park III to television shows ER and Shameless, William H. Macy turns writer/director with co-scribe duo Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison (The Jogger) to helm his first feature, making a melancholic, melodic debut. As a filmmaker, he shows the poise and polish befitting the earnest tone on display as he jumps from tense moments to upbeat montages. He also shows the intimacy required, often paired with awkwardness and sometimes devoid of subtlety, to make a sweet-sounding, soulful character study out of complex circumstances.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Director: William H. Macy
US, 2014, 105 mins
Gold Coast Film Festival
9 – 19 April 2015