Art and emotion share an essential link, and in order to thoroughly leave an impression on their audiences, artists must harness what they feel within and translate it into something tangible. As one of the most intense human emotions, grief is a timeless topic explored by artists, and one that William H. Macy’s film “Rudderless” exemplifies and entwines with song. Severely unrecognized, “Rudderless” is a film that will draw audience members under with sorrow, while still managing to entrance them with the marvelous and curative powers of music.
Desperate and floundering to regain purpose following his son Josh’s (Miles Heizer “Nerve”) death in a university shooting, Sam (Billy Crudup “Almost Famous”) is, as the film title suggests, rudderless. Quitting his high-paying suit-and-tie job for a construction gig and splitting from his wife, Sam enters a life of solitude, sustained by low-budget meals and booze on an isolated houseboat. Despite his clear attempts to distance himself from the outside world and from the memories of the past, Sam slowly begins to unravel his grief when he happens upon drafted songs written and recorded by his son. He reconnects with one of the passions that he and his son shared: music.
Through the reluctant relationship that he develops with energetic, fanboyish Quentin (Anton Yelchin “Star Trek”), who idolizes Sam’s musical prowess, Sam is able to regain a semblance of the musical connection he shared with his son. Crudup and Yelchin’s portrayal of Sam and Quentin’s slow-growing bond is golden. On the surface, through his exudence of childishness that counters Sam’s uncaring, asshole attitude, Yelchin’s character could be labeled as a convention, serving as a “replacement” of sorts for the hole in Sam’s life left by his son. However, what Crudup and Yelchin are able to conjure on screen feels so genuine that, convention or not, we want to buy into it. Though in completely different life stages, Sam and Quentin are able to find an unexpected commonality through their affinity for music. For Quentin, his musical talent represents a glimmer of hope for finding a path to success, fame and money, while for Sam, it is a means of holding on to what little he has left of his son.
Along with the fabulous performances by Yelchin and Crudup, another commendable piece of this film is its soundtrack. A perfectly compiled mixture of tunes sung by a mashup of artists, the music in this movie is truly masterful in its remarkable ability to be simultaneously raw, spirited and heartbreaking. Filled with both the slower and more downcast pieces composed by Sam’s son and a variety of new, more upbeat songs crafted by Sam and the band, the blend of contrasting tones in the songs creates a bittersweet effect, reflective of Sam’s broader internal struggle. On the one hand, music for Sam has become a means of regaining a sense of joy and light in his life, emphasized through fast-tempo, eccentric and playful numbers like a rock-infused “Wheels on the Bus” and “Real Friends.” At the same time, however, playing Josh’s songs functions as a cutting and consistent reminder that his son’s presence in his life only exists through the songs he has left behind.
The final scene, in which Sam strums one last song, “Sing Along,” before the screen goes black, is perhaps the film’s most impactful exemplification of grief. By the end of the film, Sam is not cured of the pain and heartache that the death of his son has inflicted because there is no such cure. The depth of this closing scene comes from the fact that it does not attempt to provide resolution or a guarantee of happiness for Sam in the future, nor does it illogically suggest that Sam’s grief will eventually fade. Instead, it demonstrates Sam confronting the grief, owning it, playing for his son, not out of acceptance of his death, but out of remembrance. Finishing the song, Sam tearfully sings, “I will find a way to sing your song,” a final promise to hold on to the memories of his son, painful as it may be.
In its essence, “Rudderless” is a film about finding direction and regaining purpose. It explores the complexity of grief, the necessity of friendship and the healing capabilities of music. Far quieter than its contemporary — the popular, bold and critically adored music-centric picture “Whiplash” — “Rudderless” is undeservingly overshadowed. Despite the film’s lack of recognition and appreciation by the cinematic community, its poignancy and profundity is undeniable and in passing it by, viewers would be missing out on a true treasure of a film.