The untimely death of a loved one has been a prominent subject in cinema during the last few months, with "Death Sentence
" and "The Brave One
" being violent, "Death Wish"-style vigilante thrillers and "Things We Lost in the Fire
" taking a more melodramatic approach. "Reservation Road" wants to have it both waysit's a forlorn weeper that segues into a revenge plotyet only scratches the surface on both counts. There isn't any denying that director Terry George (2004's "Hotel Rwanda
") has made a sad and contemplative picture, but that more accurately describes the general tone rather than the elicited emotions. The characters, thinly drawn types portrayed by top-notch actors, stand mostly at a distance as they go through the motions. This more than anything is the film's ultimate undoing; because of the disconnect, it leaves you feeling oddly aloof.
Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace Learner (Jennifer Connelly) lead an idyllic life in suburban Connecticut with children Emma (Elle Fanning) and Josh (Sean Curley). In an instant, tragedy strikes and Josh is killed, the victim of a senseless hit-and-run accident. As the family crumbles and then struggles to come to terms, Ethan, frustrated with the dead-end police investigation, gradually loses himself in his obsession with personally finding the person responsible. The culprit, it turns out, is closer than he can imagine: guilt-ridden lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), whom Ethan has hired for representation.
Adapted for the screen by Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz (based on Schwartz's own novel), "Reservation Road" is a perfunctory journey down avenues traveled many times before, and done more effectively at that. The film demands to be taken as a prestigious Oscar hopeful, but the material just doesn't have that level of potency; it's more akin to a slick but forgettable made-for-TV effort. The plot is a commonplace one that will be predictable for anyone who has had the misfortune of witnessing the movie's theatrical trailer, which needlessly telegraphs every little development right up until the final minute and a half. Even if the trailer was less blatant, though, the film's conclusion would still feel foregone long before its arrival.
Besides that, the coincidences used to interweave the characters of Ethan and Dwight stretch believability, with Dwight just so happening to be the lawyer Ethan hires and Dwight's ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) turning out to be Emma's music teacher. Anticipation that this latter fact will lead to a third-act revelation or impart some much-needed relevance onto Ruth's existence is unmet. Thus, the underrated Mira Sorvino (1999's "Summer of Sam
") is left to give life to a criminally thin part. Poor character development haunts most of the characters, in fact, each one never becoming more than a manufactured pawn to a matter-of-fact, all-business screenplay lacking in layers. Further hindering the viewer's bond with them is the uneven back-and-forth between Ethan and Dwight. While one of them is out of view, the viewer gets the sense that critical chunks of their lives and relationships are being missed out on.
Joaquin Phoenix's turn as Ethan Learner is distinctly different from the one in the recent "We Own the Night
," more shut off and quietly imploding as his determines to locate his son's killer, no matter the cost. The rage beneath Ethan's exterior is strongly palpable in Phoenix's distinct body language and tortured facial expressions, just as the remorse and shame felt by Dwight is always in evidence on the face of Mark Ruffalo (2007's "Zodiac
"). Ruffalo's job is in a lot of ways more difficult; because his Dwight is the one who has taken a child's life, albeit accidentally, he is at a disadvantage to gain the audience's sympathies. Through his tight-knit, if flawed, relationship with son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) and his moral conflict concerning whether or not he should turn himself in, Ruffalo mostly succeeds.
Of the trio of prominent players, Jennifer Connelly (2006's "Little Children
") has the least amount of screen time and nearly all of the most raw and powerful moments. Her Grace is a potentially fascinating person, one who blames herself for her son's death, and the struggle she goes through as she tries to move forward while feeling helpless to aid in Ethan's healing is heartbreaking. Connelly more than sells every second she is in front of the camera, which isn't often enough, and deserves recognition for doing so much with so little.
"Reservation Road" has all of the makings of a great filman A-list cast, an Oscar-nominated writer-director, an established literary pedigreebut regrettably misses the mark. The progression of the respective storylines range from stagnant to obvious to pat, and the ending, however realistic it might be, seems anticlimactic and empty. The film wants to send viewers on a cathartic ride where dry tissues will be in short supply. Director Terry George fails. The only thing bound to be dry will be the viewer's tear ducts.