William H. Macy's Directorial Debut 'Rudderless' Is A Tale Of Two Half Notes [Sundance '14 Review]

Just when you thought you'd seen William H. Macy do everything, he steps behind the camera with his feature debut Rudderless. Macy co-wrote and directs a complex story of love, loss, friendship and music. Billy Crudup stars as Sam, the successful father of a boy who dies in a school shooting. After years of grief, Sam comes to realize his son was a very talented budding musician. With the help of another young musician named Quentin (Anton Yelchin), the two bring his music to the public.

Rudderless starts like an upbeat, uplifting film. It doesn't finish there, however, instead delving into much darker issues along the way. These deeper themes definitely distinguish the film from the usual fare, but Macy's direction in both parts doesn't feel cohesive. The change is jarring and some of the goodwill the film has earned goes away at the shift. Still, it's touching movie with a fantastic lead performance and even better music.

Besides Crudup's performance as Sam, the real star of the movie is SolidState. They're the band who writes all of the original songs in the movie, which range from catchy pop-rock to melodic introspective tunes. Each song is better than the next, which is crucial since you have to believe Sam would a) be impressed with his son's talent and b) see something in the songs to want to bring them to the world. The music does that for sure, and you'll probably find yourself humming them throughout the film.

As we see Sam and Quentin's friendship develop into a partnership and more, Macy is in full control of our emotions. His band-building montage almost brought me to tears with its slick transitions and upbeat tempo. There are some truly touching scenes of male bonding and plenty of room for Crudup to play the reluctant bandleader and scarred father. It feels like the film is leading towards an obvious, predictable conclusion and you might be totally fine with that because it's just so damn pleasant and well-done.

Then, however, the film takes a drastic turn. It's something the film definitely hints at, but is still jarring because Macy has made everything before it feel so joyous. This revelation is decidedly downbeat, and to do such a complete 180-degree turn and not lose the audience is a skill even the most experienced directors could struggle with. Macy almost nails it, but the disconnect is just a bit too much for the film to be the home run it should have been.

There is a lot to like about Rudderless. It uses an accessible story to teach audiences about loss, death and truth.  The music is catchy and moving, Billy Crudup channels his inner Russell Hammond again, and the supporting cast – including Selena Gomez, Lawrence Fishburne and Felicity Huffman, all give the film gravitas. However, Macy misses the mark ever so slightly with the tonal shift, making an almost great movie simply good.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10