Reservation Road

Reviewed by Beth Miller

Toronto Film Fest 2007 (Gala Presentations)–In “Reservation Road,” Terry George's heart is in the right place, but his storytelling skills and narrative logic are not. Part psychological thriller and part family drama about loss, anger, and grief, but not satisfying on either level, the film is marred by so many contrivances and coincidences, and takes so long to reach its climactic confrontation of two emotionally scarred fathers, that it's impossible to engage, let alone sympathize, with either character.

“Reservation Road” is based on the acclaimed novel of the same title by John Burnham Schwartz, who's credited as co-scripter with George, so the faults of this well-acted, well-shot but ultimately honorable failure should be attributed to both men.

Textually, the film is also flawed for another reason: Its major strategy of endless crosscutting between the two fathers and their respective families gets tedious after the first reel. It's as if we need to be constantly reminded that both fathers are tormented, and we need to know what they are doing at any given moment. As a result, most scenes are too brief, which makes the actors' strong performances all the more impressive.

George can't decide whether “Reservation Road” is a film about loss and grievance, or about revenge and taking the law into your hands when you feel dissatisfaction with the way the authorities, here the police, deal with tragedies, here in the form of a hit-and-run accident that kills an innocent boy, forever damaging his parents' marriage and younger sister's mental welfare and naive beliefs.

The feature's first twenty minutes are terrific in establishing economically yet elegantly the basic situation and conflicts. Set in a bucolic small-town Connecticut town, on a warm September evening, college professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter Emma (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota) are attending a recital. Their 10-year-old son Josh (Sean Curley) is playing cello, and the whole Lerner clan looks up to him with pride and satisfaction. On the way home, the Learners stop at a gas station on Reservation Road to let Emma use the bathroom, and Josh gets out of the car to engage in one of his hobbies (that can't be revealed here because it later serves as crucial point of evidence).

On the same beautiful September evening, law associate Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) and his 11-year-old son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) attend a baseball game, in which their favorite team, the Red Sox, is playing, hoping it would head for the World Series. He's estranged from his strict wife, Ruth Wheldon (Mira Sorvino), now married to a more sensitive man, who doesn't trust him and is skeptical of his parental skills.

Dwight cherishes his quality time with Lucas, even if he has to fight for it. Driving his son back to his ex-wife, Dwight speeds a bit though he is not drunk, and hits young Josh in a fateful accident, while Lucas is asleep. The accident happens so fast that Lucas is unaware, while Dwight and Ethan, at this point the only witness, are both very aware. Ethan rushes to the crime scene, observes with horror his dead son, and Grace and Emma utter a long, haunting shriek.

What's a father to do Scared, panicked, and not wanting Lucas to know, Dwight claims he had hit a log on the road, and speeds away, later hiding his damaged SUV in his garage! Routine procedures follow, and the local police are called for an investigation.

Unfortunately, from that point on, the story gets predictable and begins to drag. Haunted by their tragedies, both Dwight and Ethan react in highly personal, soul-searching but unexpected ways. We then go through the motions of a family, specifically wife Grace and daughter Emma, experiencing unbearable grief, which begins to tear the family apart.

Weeks pass by, and nothing happen, that is, the guilty driver is not found yet, though all members live in the same community, go to the same church, send their children to the same school, attend performances of their kids, and so on.

The police recommend that Ethan hires a lawyer, and lo and behold, Ethan uses the services of no other but Dwight's firm, with Dwight himself assigned to the case. Meanwhile, the film continues to pile up events and encounters that only stress the tale's contrived and schematic nature. After attending the church's funeral services for Josh, Ruth offers to give music lessons to Emma, and the little girl agrees only because she's made to believe that brother Josh, an angel in heaven, can listen to music.

Since Dwight's decision not to stop is morally and legally dubious–it's hard to believe that he is a lawyer! Thus, to increase audiences' sympathy (or empathy) for Dwight, the screenplay depicts him in a series of broad strokes as a severely damaged and flawed man. We learn that he was abused by his rigid, angry father and has problems with handling temper himself; Ruth says their nine-year-marriage was “explosive.” Dwight now wants to be a good, responsible father to Lucas, but he doesn't know how. He can't even bring himself to tell Lucas of the horrible thing he had done.

Meanwhile, the Learners go through their own ordeal. Drifting further apart, the marriage becomes both sexually and emotionally barren. Obsessed with the case, and frustrated with the police's ineffective and ineffectual treatment of the accident, Ethan withdraws into himself and spends more and more time on the Internet, communicating with other parents who have lost their children.

Chat rooms are not exactly the most dramatic or cinematic arenas, since the activity calls for typing (though not once any person makes a single typo and they all type rapidly!) and waiting for response. And, indeed, Ethan gets all kinds of advices, “Don't Give Up,” “Dont Forget that the Killer is still Out There,” “Make him a Hunted Man,” and so on.

Fueled with unrelievable anger, Ethan begins to snap photos of every damaged SUV in the region, including one that belongs to a diplomat and thus infuriates the police, who arrest him for this minor violation in what's another piece of preposterous plotting. In due time, Ethan buys a gun and decides to take the law into his own hands by invading and tormenting Dwightat his own house.

Like the Jodie Foster vehicle, “The Brave One,” “Reservation Road” can't decide how far to go before losing narrative plausibility and viewers' involvement. Hence, the story walks a fine line between a realistic, provocative saga and a revenge fantasy-actioner in the vein of Charles Bronson's “Death Wish” film series.

The whole film builds toward the climactic confrontation, which is intensely acted by both Phoenix and Ruffalo, bringing to the fore primal instincts of revenge (“eye for an eye”) and rage, but also fear for life and basic survival. Unfortunately, it takes most of the running time to get to that encounter, and when it arrives it's doubly disappointing because it's so predictable in outcome.

In this time and age, it's more than O.K. for a picture to be downbeat, but “Reservation Road” is so relentlessly somber, so self-absorbed in its own milieu, that at the end of the saga, you'll just be relieved that the ordeal is over, even if it's clear that there's no resolution here and that both Dwight and Ethan will continue to be scarred.

Cast

Ethan Learner – Joaquin Phoenix
Dwight Arno – Mark Ruffalo
Grace Learner – Jennifer Connelly
Ruth Wheldon – Mira Sorvino
Emma Learner – Elle Fanning
Lucas Arno – Eddie Alderson
Josh Learner – Sean Curley
Sergeant Burke – Antoni Corone
Steve – John Slattery
Minister – John Rothman
Norris Wheldon – Gary Kohn

Credits

Focus Features release, presented with Random House Films, of a Nick Wechsler/Miracle Pictures production, in association with Volume One Entertainment.
Produced by Nick Wechsler, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers: Dean M. Leavitt, Gina Resnick.
Directed by Terry George.
Screenplay: John Burnham Schwartz and Terry George, based on the novel by Schwartz.
Camera: John Lindley.
Editor: Naomi Geraghty.
Music: Mark Isham.
Production designer: Ford Wheeler.
Art director: Kim Jennings.
Set decorator: Chryss Hionis.
Costume designer: Catherine George.
Sound: Gary Alper.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 103 Minutes.