I felt like I missed something with Rudderless, but jumping online lead me to believe that, no, the film is just manipulative. There’s a revelation made about halfway through the film that will come as a big surprise, and is supposed to transform what you think of certain characters and their actions. But I stopped and thought “wait, that’s what happened?” And it took me right out of the experience because I was thinking back on how the film kept this information from us.

Our plot follows Sam (Billy Crudup), a successful advertising executive who opens the film by closing a big deal. He calls his son to celebrate, telling him to blow off classes. The son refuses, going to class anyway. At the bar, Sam sees the worst possible news: There has been a school shooting. Yes, his son becomes one of the victims. Sam eventually loses his job goes to live on a boat several hours outside of his previous home, and Rudderless then picks up a couple of years later. Sam now paints houses for a living and is every bit the grumpy man that one can become after experiencing the loss of a child.

Sam sometimes goes to the bar and listens to local musicians play their songs. Sam’s son was a songwriter, and Sam was the one to keep all of the music. One day, he decides to play one of his son’s songs at the bar. He finds an admirer, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), who proclaims him the best thing ever. Eventually, Quentin convinces Sam to form a duet with him. And then a full-blown band. Sam sees some of his son in Quentin. From here, the film enters spoiler territory, so I’ll leave the plot here.

It’s emotionally manipulative. It drops a bomb on us but doesn’t quite know why or what its ramifications are — it just wants to shock us and to make us think back on earlier moments. Perhaps we’ll want to watch some earlier scenes again in order to truly understand them — especially now that we have new-found knowledge. At least, that’s Rudderless‘ goal. In reality, a scoff at the revelation will be a more likely reaction.

Rudderless is supposed to be touching. It’s hardly that. It comes across as too false, and doesn’t quite understand how its emotional moments should make us feel. Some scenes are set up as big and dramatic, but fall flat, while smaller scenes that are passed over were more likely to affect the audience. It’s a matter of tone and importance. William H. Macy made his directorial debut — he’s also a co-writer and has small role as the local barkeep — with this film, and it’s likely just inexperience that led to these problems. Give him another film or two and I think he’ll surprise us.

Many of the best scenes in Rudderless are when musicians are playing on-stage. This is when the film has its most energy. It helps that the music is good (or funny), but the way they’re shot and edited together make you think that, yeah, Macy has talent. Whether or not it’s really the actors singing doesn’t matter; the musical moments are good, and you might just find yourself wanting to find a Rudderless soundtrack after watching it.

Billy Crudup starts the main part of the movie as a bitter drunk, and slowly but surely turns into a nice guy thanks to the involvement of Anton Yelchin’s character. Yelchin is a bit too whiny to be taken seriously, especially in a scene where we learn why he’s socially awkward, which was supposed to be important but, quite simply, isn’t. Supporting roles go to Laurence Fishburne, as a kind music store owner, Selena Gomez, as Sam’s son’s girlfriend, Felicity Huffman, as the son’s mother, and Macy, as the barkeep.

Rudderless showed some promise, but it squandered much of its potential by being emotionally deceitful and manipulative. When the twist comes, you think on the way the film kept its secrets from you, not on how it impacts the story or alters your perception of its characters and their actions. And with it being such an important aspect to the story being told, that robs Rudderless of much of its power. The musical scenes are staged well, and the actors are pretty strong, but it’s hard to care a whole lot or recommend Rudderless because of the way its story is fumbled.

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