The Lerner family attends a summer concert featuring their son, Josh. Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), the dad and a Professor, his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter clap enthusiastically when the concert is over. During the drive home, Emma (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister) has to stop at a gas station to use the restroom. Divorced dad, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) and his son Lucas (Eddie Arno) are enjoying a Red Sox game when the game goes into overtime prompting Lucas' mom (Mira Sorvino) to call them because they are late. Racing home, Lucas falls asleep as Dwight watches the time tick away. His ex-wife is sure to cause a scene and he doesn't want to ruin the memory of attending the game with his son. Rounding a dark bend, he notices Josh too late and swerves, causing Lucas to bump his head and wake up. Dwight speeds away; convincing himself he hit a log on the side of the road. Ethan watches in horror as his son becomes the victim of a hit and run. Grace and Emma come running out and Ethan tries to comfort them. The police follow some leads, but they have little to go on as Ethan didn't see the license plate or make of the car, he only knows it was an SUV. Someone suggests Ethan hire a lawyer to help make sure the police stay on track and to pursue a civil case, should it become necessary. He walks into Dwight's law office. As the police investigation continues, Ethan becomes more and more obsessed with finding the killer, unable to adequately help Grace or Emma deal with their pain. Dwight also lives in constant fear of being found out and starts to lose sleep with the guilt of what he has done.
"Reservation Road", directed by Terry George ("Hotel Rawnda") and based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz is a very faithful recreation of the book. Produced by Random House Films, the company who published the book, the filmmakers have given the original material the reverence it deserves, allowing the writer to serve as screenwriter with the director and retaining as much of the book's material as possible.
Both the book and the film are thoughtful and thorough examinations of grief, guilt and trying to achieve redemption. They are also depressing. There is no happy ending here and the films stays true to the book, giving the characters a lot of time to deal with all of the problems this hit and run creates. That said, "Reservation Road" also allows for some very, very good performances from the three leads.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Ethan Lerner. I am so used to seeing him portray young men in their twenties; police cadets, young gangsters, young hustlers, that I didn't think it would be possible to watch Phoenix playing a professor and believe in the performance. But he pulls it off. Complete with beard and moustache, he instantly conveys the physical appearance of a professor and he uses this same demeanor to convince us he is a father of two. From the moment we first see Ethan sitting in the audience at his son's recital, Phoenix makes us believe he is a doting father. It helps that he has bulked up a little, but it goes beyond physical transformations, his attitudes and actions are more thoughtful and help to make the character believable.
As Ethan tries to get back into the swing of life, to try to resume living normal, he attends one of his college classes. As the class discusses the topic of the day, Ethan makes a comment or two, but seems lost in thought, naturally obsessed with the events of his son's death. This scene also helps to cement Phoenix's portrayal of the character, setting it apart from other laughable actor portrayals of smart people. I'm looking at you Denise Richards. I truly, really believed your portrayal of a nuclear scientist in "The World Is Not Enough". Har-har. I have my doubts you can even spell "nuclear".
As the story progresses and we see Ethan become more and more obsessed with finding his son's killer, we can almost feel a palpable sense of anxiety in his every move. He starts to search the local towns for an SUV with a damaged bumper. He joins a number of chat rooms for victims of the same crime, looking for solace.
It is a nice performance showing a maturity I didn't know Phoenix had.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dwight, the type of single dad who always makes the wrong decisions and who is always trying to spend some quality time with his son. Because he is divorced, and trying to split his time with his son, he is a bit scattered, a bit all over the place. Dwight is barely holding everything together and it doesn't help when his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) is unreasonable and insists he return their son on time, despite a Red Sox game going into overtime.
Because all of these things are going on, on a consistent basis, Dwight always looks a little harried. When he decides to take a cab into work, and he is a few minutes late, no one says anything, giving us the impression this is a regular occurrence. When he seems a bit flummoxed, for any reason, no one really asks any questions. Dwight always looks that way.
Ruffalo fits the role almost perfectly, using his natural hesitations to accentuate the character's natural anxiety. Dwight is afraid. Afraid of losing his son, his job, what little hold he has on the world. Naturally, when he learns of his involvement in the hit and run, something he knew he did, but tried to discount, he becomes even more desperate. He doesn't want to lose his son, and tries to spend extra time with him. Dwight is afraid of being found out, afraid of the police showing up at his door at any time. He seems a bit relieved when he realizes the police have no leads. But just as he feels he can relax, Ethan shows up at their office and asks for help.
Throughout the film, Dwight's guilt seems ready to consume him. But every time he is about to convince, someone says or does something, convincing the single dad he might be able to remain free, something convinces him to remain quiet.
Jennifer Connelly is good as Grace. After the accident, she is so overwhelmed with grief, she can't leave the house. Rather than some hysterical, scenery chewing moment, she plays it quiet and in a matter of fact way giving her role a lot of depth and believability. There is also a scene late in the film when she and Ethan get into a fight. Again, completely believable given what we have witnessed her going through. Connelly has also matured into a fine actress taking a number of high profile supporting roles adding immeasurably to the films she appears in.
Mira Sorvino plays Dwight's ex-wife and hers is the most one dimensional character in the film. With the fewest scenes, it is most difficult for her to establish more than a few traits for her character. In most of her scenes, she is fighting with Dwight (and she has reason to, most of the time) but this also makes her seem unapproachable and bitchy. Late in the film, she is connected to the rest of the story in another way, giving her a little more involvement, but it doesn't make her character as interesting or believable as the rest.
"Reservation Road", Terry George's follow-up to "Hotel Rwanda" is a very good film. But it deals with a difficult story in an uncompromising way, so it will struggle to catch on. If you are interested in fine dramas, you should give it a try.