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2015-07-24 07:05

What it's about:

After retreating from his life after his son, Josh, is killed in a campus shooting, Sam Manning finds a way to both finally confront his loss and maybe, just maybe, move on when he comes across a box of CDs containing songs that Josh wrote in his brief life. Teaming up with a passionate but somewhat troubled young man, Quentin, Sam starts performing the songs at a local music club but however therapeutic these performances become, as his local fame grows so does the spectre of a secret that he's been holding on to.

What we thought:

By turns uplifting, tragic and frustrating, beloved character actor William H Macy's directorial debut is an impressively assured piece of filmmaking that constantly skirts with greatness but never quite reaches it thanks to a single, critical flaw that resides right in the centre of Jeff Robinson and Brad Greiner's otherwise beautiful script.

It's hard to talk about without getting heavily into spoiler territory but, in essence, Rudderless has a twist – or at least a revelation – in the middle of the film that may not be particularly surprising but is unquestionably ill judged. More specifically, because the film has to play coy for the first half of its running time about this crucial plot point, it robs itself of quite a lot of its emotional impact by playing its cards way too close to its chest. Further, by the time the big revelation actually comes, you can't help but wonder why they didn't just give us this valuable piece of information at the beginning of the film. It doesn't add anything by working as a mid-point twist and had Macy and the screenwriters just been upfront about it right from the off, most of the film's occasionally uncertain emotional beats and apparent lapses in logic would quickly fall away.

And it's really such a pity that the film is held back by this easily fixable and endlessly frustrating conceit because there's so much else to love and admire about it. The performances, for a start, are uniformly terrific as we have an excellent supporting cast that includes Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman and Laurence Fishburne providing note-perfect backup for what may well be the very best performance of Billy Crudup's career. It's not exactly surprising that an actor of Macy's stature should bring the best out of the performers that he directs but it's wonderful to see great actors at the very top of their game nonetheless.

Not that it's just an "actors piece", of course. The story it tells of grief, guilt and good music is straightforward and familiar but, though its fortunately not universal, it is emotionally recognisable enough to pack quite a sizeable emotional punch. Its characters too are well drawn and, despite their obvious potential flaws (Quentin is kind of creepy when we first meet him and Sam is just flat out a dick for most of the film) we sympathise with and even like them. Again, both the film's emotional core and its characterization are undoubtedly hurt by its unwillingness to be upfront with the audience but that these characters and their trials and tribulations are still thoroughly engaging just shows how much there was to work with in the first place.

And, this being a musical drama that is, at least in part, about the redemptive and healing power of music, it's obviously crucial that Josh's songs (in reality written mostly by Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus) are good. Fortunately, though they may not quite rank among the very best film songs ever, they are all good, solid indie pop-folk-rock tunes that are, crucially, actually performed by Crudup (who became an avid guitar player and singer after his role as Russell Hammond in Almost Famous), Yelchin and the other young players that make up the band Rudderless. Sadly, unlike Inside Llewyn Davis or Once, a number of these songs are only played as snippets in the film but, at the very least, the heartbreakingly beautiful number that closes out the film and features a bare-bones arrangement of just Crudup on acoustic guitar and vocals, is presented in its entirety.

Rudderless may not be perfect basically but, I don't know, I think this William H Macy guy may just have a future yet in this business.

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