Dir: Terry George USA. 2007. 102 mins
A respectable, well-intentioned exploration of grief, guilt and the instinct for revenge, Reservation Road boasts some fine performances but tries too hard to pass itself off as a weighty, tear-stained Oscar contender. A plot heavily reliant on coincidence may have worked on the page of John Burnham Schwartz's novel but tends to dilute the emotional impact of the piece on screen. Some critical support may help the film's domestic release, especially if it can be positioned as a more sophisticated alternative to the sensationalistic vigilante ethos of both Death Sentence and The Brave One. Internationally, it will struggle to match the performance of similar but superior fare like In The Bedroom (2001), The Son's Room (2001) or 21 Grams (2003).
Part of the problem for Reservation Road may be the way it so obviously signals its intentions. Weary critics will feel they know exactly where they are headed as soon as the film opens with a picture perfect day in smalltown America where the sun shines, the golden autumn leaves sway gently in the breeze and a family attend a lakeside concert where their young son is performing. Tragedy is only a heartbeat away and we know that someone is not long for this world. General audiences may be less cynical and more surprised by what transpires.
On the same day, divorced dad Dwight (Ruffalo) is chasing the clock as he rushes to return his son home after a trip to a ball game. There is a sickening thud on a bend in the highway as he hits an unseen object. Dwight drives on desperate not to lose any more time. He has killed the son of Ethan (Phoenix) and Grace Learner (Connelly) and then left the scene of the crime.
The couple are raw with grief and Ethan is frustrated by the police's apparent inability to track down the vehicle or bring his son's killer to justice. He decides to seek legal assistance and of all the lawyers in all the world, he winds up hiring Dwight to keep a professional eye on developments in the case.
Reservation Road develops as a twin study of the two men. Ethan is overwhelmed by grief whilst Dwight is consumed by guilt. The balance of sympathies shifts between the two of them although Dwight has so many opportunities to do the right thing that your heart is more convincingly engaged by Ethan as he vows to pursue his own investigation into what happened and kill the man responsible. Everything builds towards a showdown but when it finally comes, it fails to provide a satisfactory dramatic punch.
Ruffalo works hard to make us understand why his character would not have the decency to go straight to the authorities and report what had happened. His anguished frustration with himself mirrors the audience's feelings even as we understand what he has to lose by being so honest. The fact that he is willing to work on Ethan's behalf and maintain his elaborate deception makes him more of a shabby coward than a tragic figure.
Joaquin Phoenix has an easier role to play as an educated man propelled towards vigilante action as the only response to an insufferable loss. Pure emotion makes his performance highly believable but this is still the kind of film in which everyone spends a good deal of time in tears and torment.
Jennifer Connelly as Ethan's wife is very much confined to this modest range of emotions. Mira Sorvino has an effective supporting role as Dwights' ex-wife Ruth. Adding to the string of coincidences, she also happens to have been the music teacher of the dead boy and his surviving sister Emma (Fanning).
Reservation Road is a perfectly watchable, middle of the road drama but given the talents involved it doesn't seem unreasonable to have expected something better. The fault seems to lie with the normally dependable director Terry George (Some Mother's Son (1996), Hotel Rwanda (2004)) who fails to impose his authority on the material, bringing professionalism to the project but not that extra edge that could have steered it further away from tearjerking, hand wringing predictability.
Nick Wechsler Productions (US)
Focus Features International (US)
A Kitman Ho
John Burnham Schwartz
based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz