A pall of confusion hangs over the first two-thirds of Rudderless, William H. Macy’s directorial debut. The characters all seem to be hiding a significant detail about their lives, forcing the actors to perform at half-intensity, for fear that they might, in using their full emotional register, also reveal the secret. It’s natural to assume that the problem arises from a lack of depth or substance in the script, which tells the story of a father, Sam (Billy Crudup), trying to work through the death of his son in a school shooting. Two years after the tragedy, Sam has run away to live on a boat, trading his advertising job for a house-painting gig, and eschewing most forms of human interaction. But when his ex-wife brings over a box of music that their son recorded before his death, Sam teaches himself the songs and plays one at an open-mic night, after which the shy but eager Quentin (Anton Yelchin), thinking he’s happened upon a brilliant songwriter, convinces Sam to start a band.
Sam doesn’t disclose, however, the true writer of his songs, a decision that’s befuddling since it seems a more-than-reasonable way to honor his son’s memory years after his death. The film, in fact, shies away from any opportunity to delve into Sam’s decision, which may not seem offensive, but is certainly worth exploring. All of which makes it seem like Macy and his fellow screenwriters, Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, have little interest in character study and are itching only to arrive at the embarrassing third-quarter reveal and fourth-quarter reconciliation. Fortunately, though, the truth for their reticence proves more compelling. Unfortunately, its disclosure is left to a third-act twist that will leave audiences to wonder if they haven’t been a bit dense the whole time. Fear not, as the true victim is the film, which unnecessarily hampers itself for over an hour for the sake of this gotcha moment before finally allowing its actors, particularly Crudup, to explore something more than generic grief.
By that point, though, the film has also settled into a heart-warming groove, pushed along largely by the music of Sam and Quentin’s poppy folk-rock band. The tone never entirely grates against the serious subject matter that Rudderless broaches, but it limits the film’s ability to dig beyond a superficial exploration. “Tread carefully,” sings Sam’s son in one of the final songs he recorded. Rudderless certainly does so, to its detriment, since the film’s premise offers a lot to mine for a director with a more intrepid approach.