William H. Macy — long noted as one of the most respected actors of our age (for those who missed him, watch “Fargo” for starters) — has now emerged as a filmmaker.

Macy’s feature debut, “Rudderless,” auspiciously and aptly bears the hallmarks of an indie film: It has originality, panache and a certain blase sensibility in the way it splashes humor about during extremely painful situations. Macy is taking a risk in doing that, as many in the audience may find these scenes insensitive, confusing or just plain offensive.

There’s very, very little to laugh or smile about in this story. Tragedy strikes in the first 10 minutes when doting dad and successful advertising executive Sam (Billy Crudup) invites his college-student son Josh (Miles Heizer) to lunch in a bar off-campus. Josh never shows, and Sam learns from the news that his son has died in a school shooting.

Rudderless (Kimi ga Ikita Akashi)
Director William H. Macy
Run Time 105 minutes
Language English
Opens Feb. 21

Two years later, Sam is a ghost of his former self, divorced from his wife (played by Macy’s real-life wife, Felicity Huffman) and painting houses for a living — when he’s not drinking himself to death. Then his ex drops off some of Josh’s belongings and among them are homemade demo CDs and a sketchbook full of lyrics. When Sam hears his son’s singing, the sweetness of the lyrics and Josh’s adept guitar playing move him to tears. Impulsively, Sam takes hold of a guitar himself and starts practicing one of the songs, which he then airs to the crowd on open-mic night at the local bar. Sam isn’t really clear about his intentions, but this is the only way he knows of calling him back.

But a young musician in the crowd, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), convinces Sam to bring out more songs and form a band together called Rudderless. In no time at all, they hire a bassist and a drummer and are singing onstage to an ever-larger crowd while privately they grin and say to themselves, “I can’t believe we don’t suck!” For the first time since Josh’s death, Sam allows himself to feel the warm pleasures of a quasi-father-son relationship, and he feels his inner ice thawing after that long period of wretched drinking.

But the pair’s success doesn’t last, as the film hastens to inject revelation and disaster in the last half-hour of the story, raking up Josh’s past and the events that took place on the day of his fatal shooting. In the swirl of the mud and muck that arises, the film finally calls into question Sam’s true emotions and how he had avoided facing them. This would have been Macy’s chance to make some real impact on the issues of teenage violence and how parents deal with the aftermath, but the story recedes into its own shell and hides behind the wonderful original soundtrack (written by Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus), leaving all the crucial questions unanswered.

Then again, perhaps the answers don’t exist. The story reserves all moral judgment of Sam and it seems as though Macy is asking that the viewer do the same.

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