The woebegone directorial debut of actor William H. Macy goes very wrong very quickly. But the opening scenes are excellent: After go-getter adman Sam (Billy Crudup, doing the best he can) lands a big deal, he calls up his college-age son, Josh (Miles Heizer), telling him to cut class and meet him at a watering hole to celebrate. The kid seemingly blows him off, and after Sam looks up at the bar television, he realizes why—there’s been a shooting, and Josh is one of the victims. The way Macy directs this sequence and the mundane buildup is superb, emphasizing how quickly and horribly tragedy can strike any of us. Sadly, it’s the only moment of genuine emotional truth.
Flash-forward two years, when Sam is now a grizzled loner living on a boat (you might say he’s rudderless). His ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) seeks him out with some of Josh’s stuff, among which are recordings of some emo-rock compositions that the kid penned before his untimely demise. After Sam plays one of these songs on his guitar during a local amateur night, he’s approached by twentysomething fuckup Quentin (Anton Yelchin, irritating beyond belief) to start a band. The group’s name? Rudderless.
What follows is a kind of unholy mash-up of Lynne Ramsay’s sobering school-massacre melodrama We Need to Talk About Kevin with John Carney’s bogus feel-good musical Begin Again. Sam channels his grief into song—and insufferably earnest tracks, with names like “Home” and “Asshole” (credited to Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus)—and the band gains an ever-bigger following. It’s enough for a cringeworthy Indiewood study of anguish; every character beat feels like it’s been workshopped to death in Sundance’s labs. But what really makes Rudderless a full-blown affront is a late-breaking narrative revelation (no spoilers here) that’s meant to add resonant emotional depth, but instead comes off as jaw-droppingly repugnant. That’s appropriate, though, for a movie with no sense of direction.
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