Reservation Road (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It would be interesting to get a psychologist's perspective about why revenge/vigilante (two sides of the same coin) motion pictures are suddenly so popular. From The Brave One to Death Sentence to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead to Reservation Road, they are moving into and out of multiplexes with regularity. Maybe it has something to do with a growing sense in society that criminals are going free and victims aren't getting justice. Perhaps there's a feeling of impotence when it comes to protecting our families and property not only from killers, robbers, and rapists but from terrorists. The revenge film provides the fantasy of control, that one person can make a difference and dole out justice when the system fails. But why is there a sudden preponderance of these movies? Is it just a coincidence or is there something more to it than that?

Reservation Road, from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is based on the moving novel by John Burnham Schwartz. Unfortunately, the changes made by Schwartz (who co-wrote the screenplay with George) to transform the story from the written page to the screen dilute the effectiveness of the source material. In the motion picture version, there are too many coincidences and the ending is weak. There are also times when a scene becomes heavy-handed, as if the filmmakers are concerned that we'll miss the point if they don't hammer it home. The book tore at my heart; the movie left me strangely unmoved.

The film begins with a freak confrontation on a lonely stretch of road. It's late at night and Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are driving home with their son, Josh (Sean Curley), and their daughter, Emma (Elle Fanning). They have been at a concert where Josh performed and pull over at a gas station so Emma can use the bathroom and Ethan can buy washer fluid. Meanwhile, divorced dad Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is racing to get his son, Sam (Eddie Alderson), back to Dwight's ex-wife, Ruth (Mira Sorvino). The two were at Fenway Park for a Red Sox game, but it ran late and now Dwight is in danger of violating his custody agreement. He's not paying as careful attention to the road as he should be and that's when the accident happens. He swerves and his SUV strikes Josh, instantly killing him.

For Dwight, the roadside encounter by the gas station leads to waves of guilt and self-recrimination. He is haunted by what happened but does not turn himself in and does what he can to hide his role in the hit-and-run. His motivation is Sam - he doesn't want to lose his son. Meanwhile, Ethan and Grace must go through the process of grieving, but the absence of an arrest disallows Ethan the ability to achieve closure. Instead of going forward with his life, he plots vengeance upon the responsible party. Then, convinced that the police are incompetent, he begins his own search for his son's killer, prepared to be judge, jury, and executioner.

The best part of the book is also the best thing about the movie - the profound sense of moral ambiguity. Dwight is not presented as a faceless, conscienceless killer who runs over Josh then gets back to living his life day-by-day. He is haunted by that night, so much so that at times the fear and guilt paralyze him. Meanwhile, Ethan is driven by emotions foreign to him. A loving, caring father and husband, he is suddenly obsessed by a need for closure when there's no effective outlet for his rage.

Like The Brave One, Reservation Road is part drama and part thriller. The first ten minutes are filmed and edited in such a way that the viewer knows something bad is going to happen. There's a sense of foreboding that nothing can shake. Likewise, there's a feeling of urgency later in the proceedings, as the climax approaches and is reached. The disappointment that results from the unmemorable ending is more a function of how it is presented than of the actual events. George and Schwartz don't get us to the point where we believe this is how things would be resolved between these characters. It works in the book because of the insight we are provided into the men's psyches. In the movie, too much is missing for it to have the same impact.

The cast is top-heavy with talent: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, and Mira Sorvino. Phoenix and Ruffalo do solid jobs (with Ruffalo providing the most complex and affecting characterization). Connelly and Sorvino are underused, but they bring strength and color to their supporting roles. There's a sense that Grace should have been given more screen time. Her story is, in its own way, as powerful as that of Dwight and Ethan. She blames herself for her son's death, but the movie's exploration of her feelings of culpability is perfunctory.

Reservation Road is potent material but it is not presented in the most effective manner. There are individual scenes that either don't work (such as Sam's utterance that unwittingly labels his father as "a no-good coward") or don't work as well as they should. The two most obvious contrivances - Dwight being Ethan's lawyer and the way in which a key revelation is handled - are changes from the book and seem designed to take this more into traditional "thriller" territory. As adaptations go, Reservation Road is imperfect; as movies go, it is a flawed presentation of compelling material and intriguing characters.

Reservation Road (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1