“Reservation Road” is a story about two fathers, and how a shared tragedy impacts both their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And to quote many other fathers, including my own, I’m not mad at “Reservation Road,” I’m just disappointed in it. I’m disappointed that such a presumably talented cast of actors could – for the most part – turn in such unspectacular efforts. I’m disappointed that Terry George chose John Burnham Schwartz’s contrived novel as a follow-up to his excellent “Hotel Rwanda.” And I’m disappointed, in advance, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for any nominations they might bestow upon this picture.
The set-up is simple enough: Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is speeding home to return his son Luke to his ex-wife after an extra-innings Red Sox game. On this same stretch of road, the Learner family – father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), mother Grace (Jennifer Connelly), and their children Emma and Josh – have stopped at a gas station. While the ladies are inside, Josh leaves the car to set free his sister’s fireflies. Dwight, distracted by his cell phone and driving at excessive speeds, swerves to miss an oncoming truck and kills Josh.
In one of the movie’s first of many “Huh?” moments (not counting the one where the supposedly gifted Josh walks onto a highway at night), Dwight drives off in a panic. While this may seem an understandable, if reprehensible action, we soon learn that Dwight is a lawyer. Even in his fearful state, wouldn’t he have realized the likely maximum sentence for accidental vehicular manslaughter would be probation?
But then we wouldn’t have all these opportunities for our principles to wallow in the twin thespian bonanzas of grief and guilt (only heroin withdrawal is a greater coup to an actor than losing a child). And wallow they do. Ethan and Grace are understandably devastated, but weeks after the funeral, when Grace is trying to pick up the pieces of their life, Ethan has become obsessed with finding his son’s killer. The police haven’t turned up any promising leads, so Ethan spends more and more time doing Google searches about how to take the law into one’s own hands.
In the meantime, Dwight is presumably wracked with remorse. I say “presumably” because Ruffalo is surprisingly unable to project anything resembling it. He knows he should turn himself in, and even makes plans to do so, but wants to spend what little time he has left as a free man rebuilding his relationship with Luke, who emerged from his parents’ divorce distrusting his father. He resolves to turn himself in once the World Series is over.
[The movie takes place during the 2004 baseball season, when Boston finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino” and propelled every author in New England into a race to set their latest comedy/tragedy/coming of age story against that magical backdrop.]
There’s potential in “Reservation Road,” but nobody involved seems to know how to bring it out. It may be because the story itself is so full of unlikely happenstance: Josh’s music teacher happens to be Dwight’s ex (Mira Sorvino), for example, and when Ethan takes one of his internet buddy’s advice and seeks legal assistance, it’s Dwight he ends up hiring.
And while Phoenix is the most convincing, and Connelly is barely adequate in both her mourning and her berating of Ethan for neglecting his family, it’s Ruffalo who really lets us down. Dwight’s guilt should escalate to such a point that his climactic breakdown is cathartic, but throughout the movie he merely seems bewildered. In those scenes where we’d assume his character to be most anxious (meeting Ethan for the first time, or getting a surprise visit from the State Police), his eyes dart around a bit, then he returns to whatever he was doing previously with nary a hint of panic or apprehension.
Very little in “Reservation Road” ultimately rings true, which makes the anguished theatrics on display that much more exasperating. If I want honest emotion, I’ll stick to Todd Field’s movies, if I want dubious coincidences and overwrought performances, there’s always “As the World Turns.”