Film‎ > ‎Papers‎ > ‎


August Film Series
Sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society and the Jung Center


Commentary by Janet Schwind, LCSW, PhD
August 27, 2015

As I watched the movie and thought about this presentation, I found myself having so many questions and wondering how others would view the many different aspects of this film. The questions that came to my mind that I would like to explore with material from the film are:  How does one think about mourning?  What must happen to allow someone not to act out their loss in self- destructive ways?  What allows you to truly mourn and feel the deep sadness that allows you to say goodbye to the one you knew, identify with what you carry inside, and continue on with life, creating new relationships?

I recently read An Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz.  I found each of the vignettes from his analytic cases very insightful and emotionally touching because they reflected the human struggle we encounter when examining our internal and external experiences.  He quotes Karen Blixen as saying, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”  Grosz begins his book by describing patients who cannot tell their story but, instead, act out their story in order for him to feel it with them.  How many times do we encounter someone who doesn’t have the words in therapy, but can communicate in action so that the therapist experiences their feelings and finds the words for them?  Grosz also poses these questions:  “What if a person cannot tell his story?  What if his story tells him?”

When I watched Rudderless for the first time, I was struck by the song that Sam’s son, Josh, sings with emptiness and hostility at the beginning:

“So this is the part where we say goodbye.
I promise I’ll try to make it stick this time.
I always loved breaking up with you ‘cause
The more bitter it was the better making up with you was.
And I think we can agree on the following things:
I’m an asshole
And you’re kinda needy.
We said it was casual
And you pretended to believe me.
Our glass is empty
At our best it was only half full.
I only love you when you’re leaving.”

Is this what Josh had grown up with and internalized?  Was he unlovable?  Could he not love?  Does there have to be excitement in a relationship to push the emptiness away temporarily?

Soon after this we find that Josh is dead and his father, Sam, is in a narcissistic depression where he cannot grieve.   He is stuck in his rage trying to drown out his pain with drinking.  He was living the song by being an asshole, living an empty life, and denying that he had a son that he loved and who left him.  The movie takes a turn when Sam’s ex-wife brings him Josh’s guitar and music, reminding him that making music was the connection he had with Josh.  Sam listens to Josh’s song, “Home”, and it resonates for him:

“Well I’m trying to get home
But it feels like another life
Yeah, I’m trying to stay strong.
Sometimes I realize
That the further I go,
The more that I know
That I wanna go home.” 

We see Sam begin his own journey to find what he has lost with Josh’s death and what is missing within himself.  After getting drunk enough to have the courage, he plays the song at the Trill Bar and a young man in the audience, Quentin, finds his singing emotionally powerful and scary.  Did Quentin feel the depth of grief that was acted out in hostility because the story could not be told?  What was Quentin’s own story of loss that he was obsessed with having Sam respond to his suggestion to make music together?

Attachment theory has shown us that we’re driven to make connections.  Quentin and Sam gradually forge a connection that increasingly reminds us of fathers and sons sharing experiences.  Was Sam trying to recreate the musical connection with Quentin that he lost with Josh?  If he replaces Josh, will he not have to tell his story and grieve his loss?  Is he trying to be the father to Quentin that he wished he had been for Josh, as he encourages him before their performance of “I will be your sidekick” and when Quentin seeks to develop a relationship with a girl?  Does Del represent the father figure that Sam needs?  Sam, Quentin, and friends form a band, Rudderless, that grounds the lost souls.  Underlying the tension and apparent success is the truth that Sam and the audience know.   He is hiding the truth about himself and lying by omission in not telling the band that his son wrote the songs; not he.  As music plays and time passes for the band, it looks like Sam has found his anti-depressant in the music and in the connection with the young men as they perform. 

Erna Furman was a psychoanalyst in Cleveland who researched the impact of loss on people.  I would like to read her description of the mourning process:

“Mourning consists of two apparently opposite processes,
detachment and identification.  Detachment is the repeated
remembering of life with the deceased, and as each shared
experience is vividly recalled and emotionally relived, it
serves to loosen our bonds with the lost partner in the
relationship and gradually to accept reality without him or
her.  Identification consists of taking into oneself some part
of the deceased and making it one’s own.  In this way we are
helped to keep him or her with us always.  Adults often take
over a dead loved one’s interests and activities or values
and attitudes and enrich their own personality  Mourning
may take a very long time, may never end altogether, but the
acute phase passes, and it becomes more intermittent.
Once again energy is freed for taking up life’s usual routines
and activities, and perhaps forming new relationships that
will take their place alongside the memories of the old ones
although they will never actually replace them.  This process
marks the last phase and mastery of the bereavement tasks.”

Reality of the unresolved grief returns in the form of Josh’s old girlfriend, Kate, who has changed her name to Ann in an effort to bury her own past where she is known as the girlfriend of a murderer.  She is the conscience who confronts Sam’s secrets and lies, breaking through his defenses, and sending him back to his pain and drinking.  However, he makes a step toward grieving by visiting Josh’s grave on his birthday.  Sam’s ex-wife appears and tries to convince him of the need for forgiveness and reconciliation in order to move on by meeting with the parents of the victims.  But  neither parent can admit any feelings of guilt or regret for being an asshole and an ice queen and their impact on Josh; instead, they recreate the excitement of their battles and keep the depressive feelings at bay.  

The cemetery scene also added another dimension for me that the film did not fully explore.    We read daily of crimes committed by persons with severe mental illness that was untreated or not recognized, or there were no services or financial resources available for treatment.   However, this film made a point of saying through the mom’s voice,  “It wasn’t our fault.  We did everything we could.  Josh was sick.”   She doesn’t explain what they did do.  But she needed forgiveness from the families of the dead children and thought that is what Sam needed too.   No parents or children are perfect.  Being able to feel one’s guilt about the negative feelings that a parent has for his/her child and share that with an understanding other—whether a therapist or an intimate friend—can be part of the mourning process and free up the painful burden that is carried. 

As Ann reappears to reveal Sam’s lies, confront his fantasy world, and remind him of the impact of Josh’s actions, Quentin takes on the role of conscience, saying the band cannot play the songs.  As Sam loses Quentin, he re-experiences the loss of Josh, and becomes conscious of his  grief, initially symbolized in breaking Josh’s guitar.  We then see him in a heartbreaking scene where he visits the memorial for the students who were murdered, broken with grief and pain and finally seeing that innocent lives were lost along with his son.  He begins his journey of mourning and rebuilding his life.  He gives Josh’s music to his mother, reminding her that there was more to Josh than a mentally ill murderer.  He seeks forgiveness from Quentin, explaining his story and realizing he wants a relationship with Quentin, not a replacement for Josh.  Sam returns to the Trill Bar and acknowledges who he is and who his son is and shares a song that reflects his journey and grief for the loss of his son.

Take a breath and count the stars
Let the world go round without you
If you’re somewhere you can hear this song
Sing along
Close your eyes and count to ten.
Maybe love’s the only answer.
I will find a way to sing your song.
Just sing along.
What is lost can be replaced
What is gone is not forgotten.
I wish you were here to sing along
My son
My son
My son

I invite you to share your reactions and questions that you have experienced as you watched Rudderless.  How did you see the process of mourning in the film?  What were Sam and Quentin experiencing and working through over the course of the film?  What enables one to mourn the loss of a loved one, keep him or her alive, and have new attachments without replacing the loved one?