Reservation Road is also a serious-with-a-capital-S tale of woe, but unlike Things We Lost in the Fire, the film won’t let you forget it for a second. The film is, after all, about the death of a child. Accidental. A hit and run. So, to top it all off, somebody must pay. If the tragedy itself doesn’t keep your spirits crushed for the better part of two hours, the hunt for revenge will.
Unless, of course, you’re rolling your eyes at the whole thing. Here, the acting is again largely understated and impressive—Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly star—but there’s no saving the absurdly structured story, which was co-adapted from John Burnham Schwartz’s novel by Schwartz and director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). It begins on an autumn Connecticut night. The Learner family, Ethan (Phoenix), Grace (Connelly), and daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) are driving home from a recital featuring their son, Josh (Sean Curley), when they stop at a gas station so Emma can use the restroom. Meanwhile, Dwight (Ruffalo) is spending some rare time with his own son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson), at a Red Sox game, trying not to get frustrated by the frequent calls from his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino), who’s demanding to know when he’s bringing Lucas home. When the game ends, they take the same road the Learners followed—and right by the gas station, Dwight loses control of his SUV and runs over Josh, killing him instantly. Lucas was asleep; Dwight panics, tells him that they hit a log, and takes off, apparently too whipped to realize that leaving the scene of a fatal accident just might be worse than a tongue-lashing from his ex.
Dwight’s reaction might be more plausible if he were just a garden-variety dumbass, but get this: The dude’s a lawyer. I suppose you can be forgiving, reasoning that no matter what his education and training, the man is human and made a poor decision under duress. (Dwight does mutter something in a video-camera confession about fearing that he’d lose his son, though he wasn’t drunk at the time or behaving recklessly.) But there’s a much greater narrative manipulation to swallow, one that I won’t give away (though others have, if you’re so inclined to look for it), only because the initial shock of the twist is momentarily gratifying. Unfortunately, it’s not long before it just seems unbelievable.
Ultimately, Reservation Road uses the Learners’ loss to set up a face-off between Ethan and Dwight that forces nuance to the sidelines. Connelly has some excellent, wrenching moments as a mother in mourning, but Grace and Emma are mostly props to show how distant Ethan is becoming as his frustration and anger over the situation—particularly, the seeming ineptitude of the police investigation—increase. (Other props: Google and chat rooms, two of the laziest, least exciting devices to reveal a character’s thoughts known to modern filmmaking.) Phoenix, known for edgier fare, is remarkably quiet and regular-dad-ish even as Ethan’s obsession grows; a bushy beard helps soften his typically intense face.
But Ruffalo—also playing against his usual teddy-bear-sort type—is perhaps the best performer here, partly because of the thanklessness of his role. It may be difficult to comprehend Dwight’s decision, but Ruffalo makes it easy to feel how completely it wrecks him, how uncomfortable simple existence has become: He can’t look people in the eye. His lies are automatic and painfully endless. And you can see, in his every twitch, that giving himself up is forever at the back of his mind. The tension is unbearable for both the character and the audience—but it’s so drawn out, with little payoff or redemption, that you’re bound to snap out of the story and be reminded that it’s all just a contrivance to make Dwight dance. It’s one thing to wallow along with a film’s tragic turns; it’s another to humor a maudlin masquerade.