Songs in the key of grief: Rudderless ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2014)

Sad fact #3,476: Mass shootings have become as American as apple pie; so much so that they have spurred their own unique (post-Columbine) film sub-genre (Bang Bang You’re Dead, Zero Day, Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Beautiful Boy, etc.). Not that its progenitor, the Grieving Parent Drama, hasn’t been a Hollywood staple over previous decades; films like Don’t Look Now, Ordinary People, The Sweet Hereafter, and The Accidental Tourist deal with the soul-crushing survivor’s guilt that results from the loss of a child. The child’s demise in those dramas was usually attributed to an accident, or a terminal illness. But it’s a different world now. And so it is we sadly add William H. Macy’s Rudderless to the former list.

There is only brief exposition in the film’s opening scene that alludes to the tragedy which lies at the heart of the story. A college student named Josh (Miles Heizer) sits alone in his dorm room with guitar in hand, playing and singing with fiery intensity as he records a demo of an original song into his laptop. He is visibly perturbed when he is interrupted; first by a fellow student who ducks his head in the door to say hey, then by a phone call from his father, an ad exec named Sam (Billy Crudup), who tries to talk his son into ditching his next class so he can join him to help celebrate that he’s just landed a big account. When we next see Sam, he’s alone at the bar, glancing at his watch…indicating Josh was a no-show. As he prepares to leave, the bar’s TV blares that there’s been a mass shooting at Josh’s college.

Josh, we hardly knew ye. But we will get to know him…through his songs, which Sam discovers after his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) drops off a car load of their late son’s musical equipment and cassette demos. It’s now two years after the incident, and a Jimmy Buffetized Sam is living on his docked boat, working odd jobs and wasting away every night in Margaritaville. He eventually steels himself to sift though Josh’s demos, and discovers that his son not only had a gift for soulful lyrics, but for coming up with hooks. He learns to play and sing Josh’s tunes. At first, he does it as personal grief therapy, then one night he performs one at an open-mic performance. A young musician (Anton Yelchin) is so taken that he hounds Sam until he forms a band with him (or are they “forming” a father and son bond?)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Macy’s directorial debut is very much an “actor’s movie”, beautifully played by the entire cast (which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Selena Gomez, Ben Kweller, and Macy as a club manager). Crudup is a particular standout; this is his most nuanced turn since his breakout performance in the 1999 character study Jesus’ Son. The script (co-written by the director along with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison) could have used tightening (by the time the Big Reveal arrives in the third act, it lacks the intended dramatic import due to all of  the telegraphing that precedes it).

Certain elements of the narrative reminded me of Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark 2009 sleeper, World’s Greatest Dad (recommended, especially for Robin Williams fans). Still, despite some hiccups and predictable plot points, Macy has fashioned an absorbing, moving drama, with a great soundtrack (composed by Eef Barzelay, Charlton Pettus, and Simon Steadman). The songs performed by the band are catchy…in a mid90s, Chapel Hill alt-rock kind of way. Macy’s film is a sad song, but you can dance to it.

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