It’s easy to poke fun at a movie called Rudderless, but I will do my best to list my criticisms without punning off the title. But this new musical drama, the feature directorial debut from actor William H. Macy, certainly possesses the characteristics of a rudderless work. And furthermore, it’s disappointingly safe and formulaic –without the richness of character that could deem this debut at the very least affecting light fare.
Lightness isn’t always a bad thing. It can allow filmmakers working with the given material to relax, think through the throwaway elements of the genre or premise at hand, and create a story that is easy on the eyes and soft on the heart. It’s less enjoyable when a high-concept screenplay pretends depth with unduly dark subject matter to bait viewers and make them think there’s something provocative at work within the padded predictability.
Rudderless begins with a school shooting to set the central cloying story in motion. Sam (Billy Crudup) loses his son (Miles Heizer) in the tragedy, and afterward discovers his boy was a very talented, aspiring guitarist with a slew of heartfelt lyrics buried in his drawer. In honour of his son, Sam takes up the stringed instrument, appropriates the left-behind creative work, and names his band Rudderless. Electric guitarist Quentin (Anton Yelchin), also bearing the weight of a dark and secretive past, climbs aboard– literally, in fact, as Quentin has to hop on Sam’s schooner to convince him he’s got a little bit of Jeff Buckley in him.
And so the band is forged, playing regularly at a local bar’s open-mic hosted by Bill Macy in a cameo. But with already a set up plagued by tone problems, Rudderless only gets more tedious when Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter’s screenplay virtually runs on autopilot for the remainder. As director, Lacy forces the feel-good and hopes he can distract the audience from the telegraphed plotting with treacle. Yes, you can bet there is an endless supply of musical montages –sure –that are cleverly cut, but only serve as gimmicks and add little frisson to the story, except merely foisting audiences onto the next plot beat.
This is the preordained pattern that the movie follows, plodding from one familiar scene to the next, with appearances by Lawrence Fishburne as a music store owner and Felicity Huffman as Sam’s ex-wife. Despite the Beautiful Boy-like circumstances, their marriage ends on surprisingly amicable terms; the screenplay depends on this so Huffman’s character, and his deceased son’s girlfriend (Selena Gomez), can provide our rumpled, Christian Bale-looking protagonist with some perspective.
And he needs it. Ridden with guilt and sorrow (which Macy’s closeups aren’t subtle about showing), Sam uses folk-rock music to get in touch with himself, overcome his misery, and sing out his son’s legacy. Unfortunately, Macy hasn’t proven to be a director who can ease out emotion in his actors and images. He forces them out instead with scenes that play only for affect; the problem is Macy tries too hard to move audiences when they’re likely hungry for a type of emotional release the film hasn’t yet gotten to – and probably won’t at all. This is a shame because the movie is supposed to be about a man seeking catharsis. So where’s the audience’s?
Macy is a skilled actor- always effective as the nebbish, stuttering type (Magnolia, Fargo) or even the straight man down on his luck (watch that done superbly in The Cooler)- but I’m not sure he has great vision as a director. He could succeed as a hired gun, and has directing an episode of Showtime’s Shameless (and more to come, including another feature in spite of my skepticism). But this first effort bares no teeth- no fearlessness- which some of the weightier subject matter of Rudderless demands for it to have a shot at adequacy. As it stands, Rudderless plays all the wrong chords.