Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Was His Song: William H. Macy's Rudderless

In the opening scenes of William H. Macy's debut film, Rudderless (2014), Sam Manning (Billy Crudup), a divorced advertising executive in Oklahoma, has just landed a large account and is in the mood to celebrate his success. He immediately calls up his son, Josh (Miles Heizer), an Oklahoma University student, whom we've just watched record in his dorm a number of songs he has written, to join him at a local bar. Although Josh is reluctant to go, Sam insists. When he doesn't arrive, Sam figures his son stood him up and leaves him a message admonishing his behavior. Just as he's about to leave, however, Sam looks up at one of the television monitors in the bar to witness breaking news about an outbreak of campus violence that he later discovers has claimed the lives of a number of students including his boy.

From there, Sam's life goes into a tailspin. He throws his career away, lives as a functioning alcoholic in a sailboat on a lake, and barely holds on to a job as a contractor's assistant. When his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) comes by to deliver their son's guitar and his discs, Sam initially wants to throw it all away in the same manner as he's been throwing away his life. But since he played music together with his son when he was much younger, he has second thoughts and begins listening to Josh's demos. Once he starts singing them, he gets reeled in by their naked power. So much so that after work, he goes by a local bar where amateurs perform their work and he sings one of Josh's songs. The tune gets the attention of a geeky and insecure young musician, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), who follows Sam to his boat and attempts to get him performing on stage with him. Convinced that there must be other great songs like that one, he ultimately convinces Sam to help him put together a band – Rudderless – which quickly achieves local notoriety with the tracks Josh wrote.

I've gone to great lengths here describing the opening section of Rudderless because the content sounds pretty much like a conventional Afterschool Special about how a parent is brought back to life by embracing the music of the son he lost to violence. But Rudderless throws the viewer a couple of potent curveballs that undo that particular notion and leave us about as emotionally unmoored as Sam. When Steve Vineberg, in praising Billy Crudup's performance a few months back in Critics at Large, described him as a "thorny" actor, he could have just as easily been speaking for the movie as well. Rudderless takes up a subject seldom dealt with from such a volatile perspective and does it with intelligence and sensitivity. This is not a story of redemption, or about healing wounds. There are also no reconciliations to be found. Rudderless is about the opening up of lesions and acknowledging the kind of trauma that has no simple resolution. In a sense, picking a genre like music was a smart choice by screenwriters Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter because we always look to popular song in times of both happiness and sadness to transform, or enhance, our state of mind. But Rudderless doesn't operate in a predictable way, but instead digs into the paradoxical question of what kind of person creates good music.William H. Macy delves quite bravely into that unresolved argument over our perceptions are around the artists who create work we love and also what values we hold them to when they do so. It may well have been that this touchy area, which is directly and thoughtfully addressed in the picture, caused the film to get some bad reviews and a straight-to-video-and-streaming fate.

Anton Yeltchin & Billy Crudup

Which is too bad. Many will miss some of the really fine work Macy does with his actors. As good as Billy Crudup was playing a musician in Almost Famous (2000), the movie itself was cloying in its examination of pop idolatry. His role as Sam has more sharper edges somewhat reminiscent of his part in Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead (2000), where he played a haunted Coast Guard officer and the former lover of a political activist (Jennifer Connelly) who turns up dead in a car bombing. Crudup has a more riveting corporeality as Sam, though, and he moves through the picture like unpredictable weather. His moody detachment also has some of the precisioned lyricism he showed in the highly underrated Stage Beauty (2003). Sam has lived his life by the Dale Carnegie kind of positive thinking that made him a success as a consultant. But when his son dies the bottom goes out of his value system and leaves him no anchor – except for the songs he discovers and hangs onto for dear life. Crudup never softens Sam's resolve, either, except in some expendable footage where he's battling with his marina landlord. The tone in those moments turns broadly comic and cartoonish. Anton Yelchin, as Quentin, shows he has grown long past the self-conscious precociousness he possessed as Hank Azaria's son on the TV series Huff. In Rudderless, he turns clever befuddlement into the disquieting aroma of profound disbelief (which is why he's also so effective as the young Chekov in the recent Star Trek films).What compels him most about Josh's songs is how they unravel those vulnerable areas he has yet to claim in himself. But his recognition of where Josh's vulnerability took him leads Quentin to a climatic moment where he no longer wishes to yield to their power. At times, Yelchin suggests some of the fragility of Brad Dourif's Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest only without the stutter.

Selena Gomez in Rudderless.

There are a number of minor roles in Rudderless that also reverberate. Laurence Fishburne turns up as Del, the cranky owner of a music store, who resembles a grown-up version of the purist record collector Jack Black played in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity (2000). Felicity Huffman's even smaller part as Sam's ex-wife sends tiny shock waves through the movie. She's able to touch depths here that she couldn't achieve in the much larger role she had in the TV series American Crime. There she had to carry all the self-conscious social commentary of the screenwriter. Selena Gomez, as Josh's ex-girlfriend, also manages to make the most out of a couple of cameo moments, while William H. Macy's proprietor, who runs the tavern and directs the musical proceedings, does it with the same casual aplomb he shows as a movie-maker. The songs by Eef Barzelay, Selena Gomez, Ben Limpic and Billy Crudup somehow seem to come magically from one mind. They create an unsettling portrait of a troubled songwriter trying to feel his way back into a world in which he feels he doesn't belong.

What makes Rudderless truly linger in the mind afterwards, though, is Billy Crudup's performance. Like a man wrestling in an emotional hailstorm in an effort to discover clarity, Sam pisses into the wind (sometimes literally) in defiance of the realities he doesn't care to accept, and yet knows he can't escape. Crudup doesn't leave the viewer any way out of the maelstrom that houses the art he feels an urgency to embrace. In the end, Rudderless is simply about trying to sing your way home just when your idea of home seems no longer possible, or to even truly exist.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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