William H. Macy Steers ‘Rudderless’ Right and True

When faced with the prospect of a familiar performer making the transition into a multi-hyphenate role, we, as audience members can experience a range of thoughts and emotions about said career moves. In the case of William H. Macy, the talented actor who has enjoyed a stellar career as a notable supporting player, the decision left me wondering what took him so long. Perusing his filmography is like sailing along, set adrift on memory bliss, if you will, with highlight markers (Fargo, The Cooler) and hidden or forgotten gems (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Lincoln Lawyer) that regain that sparkle as soon as they flash before your eyes again.

William H. Macy on the set of 'Rudderless'

William H. Macy on the set of ‘Rudderless’

The thing about Macy though is that, although he has made a successful name for himself in Hollywood, he has never taken the approach that he was too big or too special for the jobs that came his way. More to the point, he has also never phoned in a performance, no matter the material. You hire William H. Macy to breathe life into a corner of your world and he’s going to give you his last breath, which is the sign of a true professional. It is funny that such praise seems excessive and misguided, but too often, in Hollywood and even on the indie side, stars just turn up on set and leave that expected piece of themselves, the smirk or the raised eyebrow or the burst of energy that’s been processed and canned and should come with an expiration date somewhere on the packaging.

And then, because they have made box office bank thanks to their names and overplayed traits, some studio executive or a brand manager on the star’s corporate team decides it is time to do a vanity project, snag a director’s chair with their name on the back, ping pong from one side of the camera to the other in order to get a good look at their good sides onscreen.

In sharp contrast, the slide into the director’s chair for Macy on Rudderless felt as effortless as could be, which could have been surprising, given the subject matter. This wasn’t the typical vanity fare for a variety of reasons. For one, Macy being Macy meant taking a supporting role that for anyone else would have been little more than a cameo, but you get the sense that he probably auditioned himself, just to make sure Macy, the actor would give the kind of performance that Macy, the director needed. Rudderless, as an indie project, walks a fine line that could have easily tripped up even a veteran helmer and become a movie of the week affair, awash in trumped up tears and fears on account of the topicality of the storyline.

Sam (Billy Crudup), a father grieving for a son lost in an on-campus shooting, unearths a box of the boy’s recorded and annotated music. The discovery occurs well after the boy’s death, while Sam has allowed his life to spiral downward. He’s lost his high-end career, the home that looks like expensive abstract art, and the family – Emily (Felicity Huffman), the wife & mother of his son – he had already left fall by the wayside. All he’s got now is a few belongings on a docked houseboat that he furiously pisses off of each morning before he drags himself to his latest house painting gig with guys who barely know his name, let alone his sad story.

The box taunts him and when he, inevitably, begins to rummage through it, he seizes on the sound of his son’s voice, the pleading to be heard and understood, because he wishes to have one last chance to hear and appreciate his boy. He borrows that voice, learning a song or two, and decides to vent a bit, let his son live again through him, onstage during an open mic night performance. By chance, Sam encounters Quentin (Anton Yelchin),an eager young man full of musical promise, and the two stumble their way into forming a band, on the foundation of the dead son’s songs.

Billy Crudup - 'Rudderless'

Billy Crudup – ‘Rudderless’

Macy, the sure hand at the helm, found a kindred spirit in Crudup, a fellow performer who inhabits characters as if every one of them is based on a true person. Crudup is blessed with a movie star visage, although it seems like he and Hollywood have developed a curious blindness to his obvious charms. What this has done is allowed Crudup to walk the earth, so to speak, choosing roles based on a desire to simply do good in the few moments he gets in front of the camera.

Here, that means laying bare his soul in song; a not-surprising turn since he and his co-stars in Almost Famous, all the way back in 2000, actually performed as the Stillwater band from Cameron Crowe’s film. He’s not required to rock out in Rudderless quite the same way, but the performances matter because they speak so intimately, for Sam and his dead son. There are layers of emotion and meaning that must be heard and Crudup nails it, just like Macy.

I couldn’t help watching the film and noticing the eerie similarities between the two actors. You have to look past the surface, at the painstaking craft and passion each man brings to their characters. And while they barely share any real screen time together, in their passing glances at one another, there’s a connection, a wink and a nod between them reminiscent of the intuitively-charged communication between musicians. Macy is most assuredly the leader of this band, but it is only a matter of time before Crudup finds that he’s ready to take the lead.

Anton Yelchin and Billy Crudup - 'Rudderless'

Anton Yelchin and Billy Crudup – ‘Rudderless’

As one would expect though, Sam is ill-prepared for the impact of his son’s songs, and more specifically the boy’s legacy in the world, We watch Sam mis-handle moments, but never based on the intention of merely moving the plot along. Crudup makes us believe in the fundamental human truth of Sam’s failings, which grants the outcomes a degree of rationality, while also holding Sam accountable. And Rudderless, even with its emotional twists, never cashes in on simple sentiment. With Crudup and an ever-reliable Yelchin singing, playing and acting their hearts out, Macy conducts a pitch-perfect indie narrative that swings. (tt stern-enzi)