Sundance Film Review: ‘Rudderless’

Rudderless Sundance

Billy Crudup plays a grieving father who gets a new lease on life playing his late son's music in William H. Macy's miscalculated directing debut.

“Somewhere between pleasant and innocuous” is not a description one would — or should — expect to apply to a movie whose narrative is triggered by a school massacre. But that pretty well defines “Rudderless,” toplining Billy Crudup as a grieving father who gets a new lease on life playing his late son’s music. At least, it does until a late plot revelation tips William H. Macy’s directorial debut in a more serious direction that his script (co-penned with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison) is very poorly equipped to handle. Result is somewhat baffling in retrospect, if actually rather bland and formulaic to watch. Official Sundance closer may score some theatrical exposure, though being neither quite mainstream crowdpleaser nor offbeat indie, it will likely play best on cable.

Divorced advertising executive Sam (Crudup) is expecting to meet his only child, Josh (Miles Heizer), when news arrives that someone has run amok with a gun at the boy’s university. Inconsolable over his loss, Sam escapes by taking a liquid vacation that clearly hasn’t ended yet when we next meet him two years later. He’s now living as under-the-radar as possible on a sailboat docked at a small-town marina, working as a housepainter and ingratiating himself with the locals by taking a leisurely public pee every morning in full view of a lakeside restaurant.

He’s initially irked when his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman), eager to start a new life herself, unloads many of Josh’s belongings on him, including home recordings the youth made of his own original songs. Sam is so struck by them that he strums guitar and sings one himself at a local bar’s open-mike night. This gains the pesky attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a socially challenged aspiring musician who pleads and whimpers like a begging puppy until Sam agrees to play with him. Seemingly moments later, Quentin has formed a whole band (with established indie rockers Ben Kweller and Ryan Dean cast as bassist and drummer), four-part harmonies emerge on cue, and the quartet dubbed Rudderless has a regular packed Saturday-night gig.

Sam lets the others assume he wrote the songs himself, presumably because telling the truth would be too painful. He’s reluctant about the whole business, while caving to Quentin’s enthusiasm and his own undeniable pleasure in performing. (We never get any backstory explaining Sam’s practiced musical chops and stage ease.) All this is amiable enough, the rather generic sensitive-boy-rock sounds included, albeit about as credible as the rise of the Carrie Nations in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

Then, in its last half-hour, the pic drops a bombshell that provides the required third-act crisis, but is so overscaled, given the generally middleweight tenor, it constitutes a bewildering error in narrative judgment. Suffice to say that this twist suddenly turns “Rudderless” into a movie with a gaping hole that it seems uninterested in even trying to illuminate; the missing intel becomes so conspicuous that it just about invalidates the entire premise.

Crudup does a lot to keep things watchable, playing with a slightly acidic wryness that suggests the character’s humor has only been heightened by his grieving hopelessness. There’s also a pleasing turn from Laurence Fishburne as a local music-shop proprietor. Yelchin oversells the nervous-geek act at first, but ultimately does well in an underwritten role. Other perfs are just OK, with Selena Gomez underwhelming in a couple of scenes as the dead son’s ex-g.f., and Macy casting himself as a bar owner — a curious decision, since the script gives him little to do and he seems atypically disinterested doing it.

Most songs are written by Simon Steadman (formerly of Britpop group Steadman) and Charlton Pettus, otherwise known as duo SolidState. Their work is solid, accessible, very oughties emo-type pop, but without a whiff of originality, and with lyrics that ultimately ill serve the story. The actors play their own instruments, though the illusion of live performance is sometimes belied by a heavily produced sound.

Shot in Oklahoma, the production is solidly pro all around, but as a director there’s not much one can say about Macy here beyond noting an earnest, middle-of-the-road, borderline-hokey approach in both style and tone.

Sundance Film Review: 'Rudderless'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 2014. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production

A Unified Pictures/Dog Pond production in association with Amberdale Prods. and Bron Studios. Produced by Keith Kjarval, Brad Greiner. Executive producers, Patricia Cox, Nathan Kelly, William H. Macy, Aaron L. Gilbert, John Raymonds, Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter, Birgit Stein, Randy Wayne, Mary Vernieu, Ali Jazayeri, Jacob Pechnik, Jeff Johnson. Co-producers, Tyler Jackson, Gary Michael Schultz.

Crew

Directed by William H. Macy. Screenplay, Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison, Macy. Camera (color, HD), Eric Lin; editor, John Axelrad; music, Eef Barzelay; original songs, Simon Steadman, Charlton Pettus, Fink; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; production designer, Chris Stull; art director, Rebekah Bell; set decorator, Brent Mannon; sound, David Kirschner; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Pete Horner, Christopher Barnett; assistant directors, Rachel Jensen, Nicolas D. Harvard; casting, Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd.

With

Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Jamie Chung, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne, Ben Kweller, Ryan Dean, Peter Spruyt, Miles Heizer.

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  1. Paul Toft says:

    I absolutely loved this movie. It moved me on a profound level. I’ve never thought aboutwhat the parents go through. Now I have and it deepened my compassion. Not sure what movie the critic saw.

  2. Paul Woodland says:

    wow… I’m really astounded by this review…

    I believe, that like most films, independent or mainstream, Rudderless has a weak moment or two… and when I say weak, in this instance I mean to the most negligible degree… and most certainly without reference to its original and relevant songs, the very credible performances of all the main cast, the extremely moving storyline and the caring way the material was formed into a perspective mostly neglected when this sort of horrible circumstance occurs…

  3. aeg66 says:

    This review is so opposite the actual film, it makes me wonder if the reviewer was rejected for a role…yes it’s that ridiculous. And the plot twist was major but handled gently.

  4. Brigid McKenna says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with this review. This film was beautiful. The twist turns everything on its head and makes you feel empathy and compassion when you thought you couldn’t. It opened my eyes and softened my heart. It’s given me something extremely important to examine in myself and others. And the music! Please, don’t denigrate the music. It’s amazing. If you don’t understand it, I guess I don’t understand you.

  5. Marcia Ralph says:

    Wow. What a harsh review. And so far off base.I love this movie and thought Macy did an excellent job. It really touched me. I would have liked to know more background of Josh and his parents but I can understand that this would have made a much longer movie. But Macy did give us enough info so that we understood enough about the characters to touch our hearts. This film certainly touched mine anyway. I think this reviewer should get a job writing obits. Clearly he is not qualified to write film reviews.

  6. Wesley Owens says:

    Great movie, I actually really enjoyed it, and have watched it a few times now. I do, however, feel that it left me wanting a little more meat on the bone after the graveyard scene. Not much, but it feels like it was just missing something. Love Macy as an actor, and can’t wait to see what he directs next.

  7. George D. says:

    Great movie. I don’t agree with the negative review.

  8. Gilad says:

    Maybe the most pathetic bitter review I’ve ever read.

    This was a top notch movie really well executed and amazing storyline and characters

  9. James says:

    I think it is a great movie and your personal review of the movie sucks.

  10. BubbaFatt says:

    I have an extremely broad taste in movies that is all over the map. I, along with everyone that I’ve recommended this movie to, thought it was a breath of fresh air. Maybe the reviewer only likes bro fisting beat em ups and BDSM porn?

  11. sirensongwoman says:

    Either we didn’t see the same movie or you’re attempting to seem so, like, above It All. It only makes you come off as full of crap. The movie is breathtaking. I hope sh*t “reviews” by people like you don’t scare off people who really should see this breathtaking gem.

  12. filmfan says:

    Saw it at Sundance and the standing ovations there beg to differ. Makes me wonder if there’s an ax to grind against Macy by Mr. Harvey

  13. Brian Baque says:

    Dennis Harvey, you are a moron.

  14. djinsd says:

    I saw this Saturday at Sundance and can only say that I think this review was fundamentally self-serving and more about the author than the movie. There were elements of the film that were somewhat formulaic but they were a) presented in a very skilled and convincing manner, and b) very much offset by the plot twist that the reviewer wants to discount as poorly accommodated. When a film moves you and bends you AND you talk about the nuances and unexpected twists hours or days after the credits roll, it’s satisfying and successful. And this film qualifies profoundly in my opinion. I will race to see the next Bill Macy movie sight and synopsis unseen.

    • nick says:

      I cannot agree with you more. Macy just appears enough to move the plot along and, as his previous works, albeit as an actor, demonstrate that he is the talent and the reviewer is way too polarised on himself.The rest of the leading cast supportd well too, and Billy Crudup was just superb.

  15. Stinky Stank says:

    “The band Steadman have the songs, the musicianship, the energy and the enthusiasm to blow the top off any club, or arena, and, if given a listen, have that rare quality: the ability to deliver! – Sir Paul McCartney

  16. I think this is a horrible review. Yeah, the plot synopsis is right. But the opinions about the plot twist and the music/lyrics are, to me, pretty opinionated and stupid. How do the songs not seem original? Point to similar music, please. How do the lyrics not serve the story?!!?!??! How could you even say that?! I’m not saying that they don’t, but you absolutely don’t make a case to defend your point, which makes the point seem pretentious and opinionated, thus the reviewer doesn’t sound knowledgable–he sounds petty. What could have been journalism, actual reporting, is made gross and thoughtless. Nice job.

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