Thursday 20 April 2017

Movie Review: Rudderless (2014)

A drama set in the world of grief and music, Rudderless tackles the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of carrying on with life after a crushing family tragedy.

College student Josh (Miles Heizer) is killed in an on-campus school shooting, sending his father Sam (Billy Crudup), a marketing executive, into a depression. Two years later, Sam has quit his job, moved two hours out of town, is living on a boat and working as a lowly painter. His ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off some of Josh's old items, and Sam stumbles onto song recordings and lyrics that Josh was working on.

He performs one of Josh's songs during open mic night at The Trill tavern, attracting the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a young man who insists that they team up and perform together. Sam is reluctant but eventually yields, and gradually the band Rudderless is formed, gaining local prominence with the help of music shop owner Del (Laurence Fishburne). Sam helps Quentin mature as a man, but with the reappearance of Josh's old girlfriend Kate Ann (Selena Gomez), the events of the past are about to again rock Sam's life.

The directorial debut of William H. Macy (who also has a small role as the tavern's owner), Rudderless combines music and mourning as it ventures into rarely explored territory. The world of hurt in the shadow of a mass shooting makes for difficult story telling material, but Macy along with screenwriters Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter construct a highly watchable and heartfelt drama.

The songs are of the soulful soft rock white-man-with-a-guitar variety, not nearly as unique as the film makes them out, and the musical performance segments are more numerous and longer than they need to be. Macy finds better traction when the focus is on Sam, and then in the dynamic between Sam and Quentin. Josh's ghost is never far away from Sam's new stripped-down life, much as he wants to avoid it, and his interactions with Quentin and the other young men of the band are built on a rickety foundation of deep hurt.

Without ever showing what happened at the school shooting, the film drops steady hints that no matter how many houses he paints, beers he drinks or songs he sings, Sam will not be able to avoid confronting the past. His own actions inadvertently but finally open the door for recent history to storm in, and it is as painful as Sam knew it would be. The final act hits some, but not all, the high notes it aims at, as this chapter of the grief journey maybe ends too tidily.

Rudderless rides on a majestic Billy Crudup performance as he revisits the musical world that made him Almost Famous. Here his performance is built on active emotional hide and seek, and Crudup perfectly captures a grieving father bottling up a yearning to scream at himself and the world. Anton Yelchin is all about the intensity of youth making something happen out of the haziest opportunity. One of the film's strengths is in only hinting at Quentin's troubled past and present, Sam's help remaining at the superficial level, the damaged ex-father not equipped to re-assume fatherly duties.

Rudderless is about new beginnings setting sail, but only after catching the winds of the past.

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