Terry George's RESERVATION ROAD is this year's grim, family-tragedy movie. Similar in some respects to films like THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and IN THE BEDROOM, RESERVATION ROAD tells a painful, heartfelt story that in the end feels a little false because of script contrivances and an uneven tone. Still, the performances from Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix are magnificent (especially Ruffalo) and the film has several excellent scenes which elevate the film to worth-watching status.Based on John Burnham Schwartz's novel (Schwartz co-wrote the screenplay with George, and made a few major changes to the narrative),
RESERVATION ROAD centers on a horrible accident and the aftermath that consumes two families. Lawyer Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) is rushing home one night with his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) from a Boston Red Sox game. Pressured by his ex-wife Ruth (the welcome Mira Sorvino, still looking hot) at every turn, Dwight, in a careless bit of driving-while-cell-phoning, accidentally hits something with his car on a twisty, back-woods road while trying to avoid a collision with another vehicle. Knowing full well that he has hit something (but at first not exactly sure what), Dwight continues driving, not wanting to be any more late than he already is in getting his son home to his mother. But he did hit something alright--dead on the ground is college professor Ethan Learner's (Joaquin Phoenix) son, Sean. Ethan and his family had stopped at a gas station so that his wife Grace (Jennifer Connolly) and daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) can use the bathroom. An all too familiar tragedy that you hear about every night on the local news. But then, the demands of genre and convention appear, and what starts as a serious look at personal responsibility, guilt, and revenge, turns into a contrived pseudo-thriller that while always interesting, is less than fully persuasive.
Dwight eventually finds out that he's hit a kid and becomes racked with guilt over the situation; who wouldn't? He even takes an odd trip to the police department, ready to turn himself in, but he can't do it. It's when Ethan, losing a grip on his sanity and consumed with feelings of revenge when the cops aren't able to offer any leads as to who committed the hit and run, visits Dwight's law firm for representation in the case. The scene is scary and awkward; here's the grieving father sitting across from his son's killer and he doesn't know it. It's in this moment that the movie morphs from realistic human drama into a ticking-clock thriller; will Ethan put the pieces together and realize that Dwight is the one who killed his son? Or will Dwight, consumed with sadness, turn himself in? Or will something else happen? I won't say anything more about the plot at this point. There is a scene late in the movie that is intense and unpredictable in terms of the fates of the main characters, but it comes at the service of lazy plotting.
Ruffalo, who earlier this year delivered an amazing portrait of an obsessed cop in David Fincher's masterpiece ZODIAC, gives his second great performance of 2007. He gives Dwight believable moments of sincere regret and uncomfort that are painful to observe. He's a sympathetic character who is the "bad-guy" of the film, but not a "bad-guy" in the traditional sense of the phrase. Credit George and Schwartz for shading Dwight, and Ethan for that matter, in shades of moral gray. Dwight could have been drunk driving but he wasn't; he was just being careless and made a tragic, awful mistake. He's a good guy; a bad husband but a respectable father, who is trying to bond with his son while wading through the tragedy of hitting a boy roughly the same age as his own son. It's powerful stuff at times.
Phoenix, who gave a searing performance in this year's WE OWN THE NIGHT, downplays the emotional outbursts that are saddled on characters in dramas like this. He's deeply heartbroken, yes, but he's never over-the-top about it. Phoenix knows that the story is upsetting enough on its own that he doesn't need to grandstand for the audience. It's a measured, controlled performance that slides into vengeful rage during the last act. And when he finally explodes, it's an emotional relief not only for his character, but for the audience as well.
I wish that RESERVATION ROAD had made up its mind as to what it wanted to be; a study of familial loss or how a parent channels their feelings of revenge over the death of a loved one. George directs with a quiet, reserved style; the earthy and subdued cinematography by John Lindley (FIELD OF DREAMS) meshes well with the fall in New England setting. It's a much different film, and not as fully accomplished, as his directorial debut, HOTEL RWANDA. George opts for cross-cutting between Dwight and Ethan for much of the film, and at times, some of the scenes feel truncated and slight. You want to hear more of a few conversations that characters have and when the ticking-clock thriller aspects start to show up, RESERVATION ROAD feels a bit rushed.
If you like dark, sad dramas with excellent acting, check out RESERVATION ROAD. It's not the sort of film that I'd say you need to rush out and see on the biggest possible screen; it'll make for a solid DVD rental. Flaws aside, it's a thoughtful, serious-minded adult drama that works well enough overall.