★★ / ★★★★
After a school shooting and their college-aged son, Josh (Miles Heizer), ending up dead, Sam (Billy Crudup) and Emily (Felicity Huffman) get a divorce because they are largely unable to move on from the loss and trauma. Josh was quite a singer-songwriter and, two years later, Sam decides to pass his deceased son’s songs as his own. Impressed by Sam’s performance at a bar, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a musician, approaches the man and suggests that they collaborate to make the songs even better, thus reaching out to even more people. If they are lucky enough, maybe they might make it big.
I wished “Rudderless,” written by Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison and William H. Macy, were a better dramatic film because the songs are so amazing at times, I could not help but think about certain Oasis songs about half a dozen times. Notice that if one were to take the songs away, what results is a deeply unfocused picture with only skeletal-level characterization—if that. It is a disappointment from a storytelling perspective.
Details of the dissolution of Sam and Emily’s marriage is absent which is a problem because there are two would-be moving scenes between the former partners. I felt close to nothing during their interactions because a history between them is not established. I tried to imagine how they must have been like together prior to their son’s death but it is a challenge not only because the screenplay fails to establish the tracks but also because Crudup and Huffman, who are good actors, share little chemistry. It is difficult to believe their characters were married in the first place.
The relationship between Sam and Quentin, who is not coincidentally around Josh’s age, leaves us cold for the most part. Although it is admirable that the material does not go for the expected father-son dynamics, it does not traverse an avenue worth exploring. They are neither friends because of the age difference nor are they sort of a family because Sam is still in deep mourning. So what are they? One gets the impression that by the end they remain strangers. There is no discernible, tangible arc in what they come to share.
When the talking stops, musical instruments are picked up, and singing starts, the movie comes alive. While many of them have an inherent sadness, there is still variation to each of them so not one comes across as repetitive. There are instances when I lost track that I was watching actors performing on stage. Observing them is like being in a real bar and just enjoying the experience of spending time with friends and there happens to be great music being played live.
It must be kept in mind that “Rudderless,” directed by William H. Macy, is a dramatic picture first. The music comes second. Perhaps with a little bit more time drafting the screenplay in order to come up with complex, elegant, and convincing character development, it could have met or even surpassed its potential to entertain and move the audience as a movie, not simply as a soundtrack.