“But make no mistake, you are hiding.”
Every once in a while I specifically choose a movie to get on dvd through Netflix that I’m sure nobody else has seen. Don’t get me wrong, for a film geek like me, the abundance of streaming titles and on-demand options available is a modern day miracle, as well as an anxiety inducer that I’ll never get to see them all. Despite the new trend of instantly watching what you want, where you want, whenever you want, there is an old school allure that comes from waiting days for a movie to arrive. To find time to pop it in, press play on your remote, and sit back without other tabs open to distract us. I’m glad that I did so with Rudderless. It’s not a technical wonder, but its unique story of catharsis through music is too hard, and good, to resist.
After landing a big client at his advertising firm, Sam (Billy Crudup) calls up his son Josh (Miles Heizer). Sam’s elated and asks his only child to cut class and join him for a celebratory beer. Josh skips out on his dad’s request, and later we see a frantic Sam in the bar, witnessing live coverage of a campus shooting at his son’s University. Surely that’s a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s strange how Sam handles the situation though. He shows no emotion at the wake, doesn’t know what to say to his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) or Josh’s old girlfriend (Selena Gomez). Sam is detached, from the world and from the people he once loved and cared for.
Flash forward two years and Sam has completely cut himself off from his past life. Living on a sailboat, working on a paint crew, riding a bike instead of driving a car so he can spend his days and nights getting gleefully drunk. It’s a heartbreaking deterioration. Surprised by his ex with Josh’s guitar and recordings of his original music, Sam slowly starts to listen and memorize the songs, even mustering up the courage to perform one at a local dive bar’s open mic night. That’s where 21 year-old music lover Quentin (Anton Yelchin) hears him play, and where Sam finds his much needed sense of atonement.
Quentin sees promise and artistic value in the songs Sam performs…he just doesn’t know that they’re not his. For all of Sam’s unwillingness, Quentin matches him with a youthful excitement and eagerness to do something real and worth value. They slowly form a band, amass a cult following, and grow larger in the community than Sam could want or need. Sam doesn’t want the spotlight. He’s had cameras hound him since the school’s massacre. He wants to erase his sorrow, but in his case, you can’t lighten up such a darkly drawn line. It simply can’t be lifted from the page.
Directed by screen legend William H. Macy, Rudderless is really up and down in its visual style. Some of his work is great and some of it, especially the beginning, literally looks like a TV movie. But he has his heart in the right place throughout and delivers in the film’s biggest moments. As for Crudup, I could and would watch the guy in anything. He’s a three point actor, a beyond the arc threat with serious range and skill. And he needs to be believable because Sam is a troubled character. You’ll understand that more once you watch it. This review may read like I gave away the whole plot…trust me, this is nothing. It feels like a bogged down version of The Wrestler with the sweaty mats traded in for guitars and lyrics. While I wish it ditched the sideplots and took a more straightforward approach, Crudup held me all the way through. Granted it’s very early in the year, I still haven’t seen better work by a male performer widely released so far in 2015 (for what it’s worth the movie was released in select cities October of last year but wasn’t available to everyone until this past February.)
Movies about music have to have good songs. There’s no way around it. Like John Carney’s films, Rudderless has memorable music that’s actually better than most of the singer-songwriter crappola being released today. What makes the movie unique in a crowded genre of self-destruction onset by tragedy is its originality. The route has never been done before, and if it has I haven’t seen it. Films like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Beautiful Boy…they all handle the same topic with a grave sense of morbidness. Rudderless sets sail because it manages to rally us around the protagonist, a drunken and careless bastard determined to stop failing others whilst continually letting himself down. Rudderless may be too mashed together, but it’s never lumpy, and the smooth ride gives us close enough coordinates to find the destination. The sobering and sad ending may not be what we expected, but it’s the one that we actually needed to see.
“Take a breath and count the stars.”
Rating: 4 out of 5