RUDDERLESS steers clear of cliche and heads straight for our hearts. WILLIAM H. MACY makes his directorial debut in this emotional hidden gem. Don’t let this movie SLIP THROUGH the cracks. I would compare it’s overall vibe somewhere between the character driven films of CAMERON CROWE (ALMOST FAMOUS) and RICHARD LINKLATER (BOYHOOD).
BILLY CRUDUP stars as a father who struggles to rebuild his life after his son dies in a tragedy. Two years later, Crudup has done everything to forget his “former” life. He’s traded his white collar in for a blue one. He’s in hiding, living on a boat at a marina, until one day his ex-wife (FELICITY HUFFMAN) finally tracks him down and forces him to deal with their son’s death.
Huffman leaves behind boxes of their dead son’s belongings. This is when Crudup discovers the music his son made and the story really lifts off. He combs through books of lyrics and CDs full of songs to better understand his son. He soon decides to share this powerful music with others by performing at the local bar’s open mic.
A musician (ANTON YELCHIN) just happens to hear the song and is so impressed he chats up Crudup. A beautiful pseudo-father-son relationship quickly develops, as Yelchin is the same age his son would have been. They eventually form a band and perform regularly. It also turns out that Yelchin could use some guidance as he comes from a troubled home and has his own troubled past to contend with.
The story doesn’t unfold the traditional way. Crudup’s character isn’t exactly a good role model. He has many flaws. The biggest problem is that he never tells the band who wrote the songs. This brews some tension under the surface. In fact, Crudup doesn’t tell anyone anything about his life. He’s a friendless alcoholic. He’s directionless, just like the title infers. But so is Yelchin. This unusual relationship will ultimately be beneficial to them both.
Rounding out the rest of the secondary cast we have LAURENCE FISHBURNE and SELENA GOMEZ. Fishburne’s character runs a music store and allows us to explore Yelchin’s past. He also adds some good laughs and a mature voice for Crudup to talk with. While Gomez has a smaller role, she is no less pivotal to the overall story and its complex character development. She was Crudup’s son’s girlfriend. Sooner or later she finds out about the music, and confronts Crudup arguing morals and ethics. RUDDERLESS balances these back-stories with a delicate nuance, as the main focus is on the father.
Huffman only appears in a few scenes, but each one is memorable. We never spend time with the family unit. We meet Crudup the day of big success at work, then his son dies. So when we see Huffman later in the movie, we know a confrontation awaits. Not an argument confrontation, but an emotional release, a confrontation of the past and what happened that day 2 years ago.
They accidentally meet at their son’s tombstone around the film’s halfway point, where RUDDERLESS drops the biggest and most impactful twist I’ve felt since THE SIXTH SENSE. And I won’t spoil it here. I will simply say this revelation steers the movie in a completely new direction. This twist adds weight to the songs, and their messages, at the same time as illuminating the entire movie and Crudup in a different context.
There is no flashy moment to be had. The twist is actually rather matter of fact, like the rest of the movie. Because of this realistic approach the surprise hits us in the gut with a heavy fist. It made me swear at the TV. I was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t think I could feel more invested with this movie. I was already on board and fully empathizing with the characters. I was totally absorbed. I fully appreciate the subtle approach. And now I knew why it was so sombre in tone and so quiet earlier.
Characters are king in independent cinema. So in this case, RUDDERLESS is royalty. Everyone is multi-dimensional. The standout character is Crudup’s, but Yelchin’s isn’t pale in comparison. These colourful characters drive this movie from an emotional foundation.
The music played in the movie is actually good too. Obviously, we pay more attention to the lyrics because we are thinking through Crudup’s frame of mind. We want to connect to his son just as badly. While some of the music may be sad, a lot of it has an energy to it, especially with Yelchin’s additions. The band has fun.
This heart-breaking movie is not depressing. There are tons of laughs, most of them salty and acidic. Really, the point I want to drive home is that RUDDERLESS is positively uplifting. I won’t spoil what happens by the end, but I felt very satisfied.
Most importantly this character-based story is realistic. It feels like a true story brought to screen. It explores areas of social commentary but never thumps us over the head with messages. We get the idea that people make mistakes – when we do wrong, we beg forgiveness. Our worst shouldn’t outweigh our best. Our best should give us hope.
I really enjoyed Crudup’s journey from tragedy, to denial, to forgiveness, to acceptance. His performance sells the story. If he didn’t deliver, this movie would fall apart.
I look forward to Macy’s next movie. It seems like he can balance true emotion against melodrama. RUDDERLESS never felt over-the-top, or cheesy, or mushy, despite its subject matter of loss & of hope.
What did you think?
Have you even heard of RUDDERLESS? This indie came as a surprise to me. When I enjoy a movie this much, I always wonder why the critics didn’t agree?
Or if they did, why didn’t they champion it? How do we not hear about RUDDERLESS during Award season? Am I the only one that loved this movie?
Did you like Billy Crudup in the lead?
What did you think of Anton YELCHIN? I thought he delivered a few laughs, but was more than a punchline.
What did you think of the supporting cast? I’ve seen Selena GOMEZ in a few movies now. Is she ready for the screen? What is her best performance?
Did you like the band’s music?
Did the twist blow you away?
Was the movie too subtle or too bland? Did you want something more to happen? Or did you want more explosive confrontations?
What do you think of actor/directors? Do they somehow get better performances out of their actors?