Director : Terry George
Screenplay : John Burnham Schwart and Terry George (based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Joaquin Phoenix (Ethan Learner), Mark Ruffalo (Dwight Arno), Jennifer Connelly (Grace Learner), Mira Sorvino (Ruth Wheldon), Sean Curley (Josh Learner), Elle Fanning (Emma Learner), Antoni Corone (Sergeant Burke), Gary Kohn (Norris Wheldon)
There are no good guys and bad guys in Terry George's moral thriller Reservation Road. Rather, there are normal, flawed human beings struggling with their emotions in the tangled web spun by the conflict between morality and self-preservation. One character, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), a bearded history professor, loses his 10-year-old son when an SUV swerves on the road, hits him, and then drives away. The driver of the SUV, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a divorced lawyer with a young son of his own, is wracked with guilt when he realizes what he has done. Ethan buries his grief in a driving resolve to identify the hit-and-run felon while Dwight struggles with his increasingly debilitating guilt.
For each of these men, self-preservation is crucial. While Ethan's wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), grieves for her lost son and then pulls herself together and moves forward with her life, he finds it impossible to let go. Obsessed with the idea that his son's killer is somewhere “out there,” he loses himself in Internet chat rooms populated by other parents who have lost their children in hit-and-run accidents. He launches his own investigation when he becomes convinced that the police are not doing all that they can. But, more than anything, he constructs in his mind a portrait of the killer, convincing himself that only a soulless monster could have possibly taken his son's life and then driven away. As Nietzsche warned about staring into the abyss, Ethan becomes something of a monster himself--deranged, obsessed, increasingly isolated from the family that needs him, he feeds dangerously off his own grief, anger, and resentment.
In contrast to Ethan's imaginary, we see Dwight not as a monster, but as an ordinary guy who made a horrible mistake, panicked, and ran. He is not a bad man, although he has his failings. Like his father and his father before him, he has issues with anger management. He loves his son, Josh (Sean Curley), but he doesn't always deal well with Josh's mother, Ruth (Mira Sorvino), and their volatile relationship has the potential to send Josh down the same angry road. When Dwight realizes that he has accidentally killed a boy, he consciously tries to cover up his crime, mainly because he is terrified of losing his son. He lies to investigating police officers about his SUV (which he has hidden in the garage), and the rental car he starts driving in its place becomes a daily reminder of his guilt.
When Reservation Road sticks to the dramatic gut, it is a deeply moving and penetrating study in human frailty. Like all good dramas, we may not always agree with what the characters do, but we understand why they do it. Only the most self-righteous prig could not fathom behaving exactly as Dwight does in trying to cover over what he's done and hope that it will all go away, and only the most self-deluded peacenik could not in some way imagine being wracked with the kind of anger that drives Ethan to the point of no return. Both Dwight and Ethan are each in their own way monsters, yet they are undeniably human, an inherent contradiction that both Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo bring out beautifully (Phoenix gives us a steely-eyed anger that is like the blade ready to slice into Ruffalo's shaky, modern-day Arthur Dimmesdale).
Unfortunately, Reservation Road also relies quite heavily on a strained series of connections that bring all the characters together in ways that are meant to suggest how all our lives are intertwined, but feels more like cleverness for its own sake. At different points we realize that Dwight and Ethan's worlds were already connected before the accident, and then the pot starts to boil when Ethan hires Dwight's law firm to represent him and Dwight is put in charge of pressuting the police to find the killer. There is a dark irony here, but one that feels more blatantly concocted and not nearly as emotionally unnerving as the stripped down confrontation that ends the film, when all pretenses are torn away and the two men's hearts are laid bare to each other and, more importantly, themselves.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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