Director: Terry George
Starring: Joaquin, Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Mira Sorvino, Elle Fanning, Sean Curley, Eddie Alderson
Running Time: 109 min.
*** (out of ****)
It happens every year. A film released during awards season with “OSCAR” written all over it lands in theaters with a commercial and critical thud, disappointing everyone. On paper, there were few bets better in 2007 than Reservation Road. It was helmed by the Oscar nominated writer/director of Hotel Rwanda, starred two Academy Award winning actresses and even an Oscar nominated actor. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single review of the film ranking it above the two and a half star level and it was snubbed by every major critics group.
It’s almost impossible for me to believe, despite the critical thrashing it took, that I somehow missed a film that falls into my absolute favorite film genre: Suburban American Nightmare. My love for this genre is so strong that two films from it were represented on my recent list of top ten list of favorite all-time films. I also thought Todd Field’s 2006’s masterpiece Little Children deserves to rank among the very best covering that territory and one of the finest films of this decade. Being that both films share one of my favorite actresses, there was even more reason to see this.
The list of great achievements in this genre are staggering; Ordinary People, The Swimmer, The Ice Storm, American Beauty, In The Bedroom, House of Sand and Fog. Some are better than others, a few even masterpieces, but they’re all worthy entries that say something important about how we live. We all gravitate to a certain type of film but I keep coming back to ones like these. They hit closest to home in the most literal sense for me. They explore real people struggling with real problems that, if executed under the best circumstances creatively, can give us insight into our own challenges.
Reservation Road is not up to the level of those aforementioned titles and I could see where some would find it a disappointment given the talent involved. There’s no question it could have been better and I’d probably believe anyone who tells me the critically acclaimed bestseller by John Burnham Schwartz (who also co-wrote this screenplay) is far superior. The film succeeds in realistically depicting the intimate details of a tragedy but is burdened with a problem, and it’s a fairly big one many won’t be able to get past.
The story rests on a giant coincidence the commercials and trailers for the film have gleefully bragged about. I know my limits and won’t attempt to defend it. It’s just bad screenwriting. If this script were written on spec, or probably by anyone other than an Oscar nominated screenwriter, it would be tossed in the trash and this project would have never gotten the green light. But I’m forgiving it because director/co-writer Terry George proceeds with it honestly, like he doesn’t have a care in the world how stupid it is. It’s dumb, but at least he knows not to take it TOO FAR.
As much as I'm reluctant to admit it, this coincidence makes for great drama and tension, and the film wouldn’t have been nearly as suspenseful without it. And two actors (in performances that ARE Oscar worthy) find emotional truth in the story even when at times George’s script can’t, while another actor turns what could have been a silly cliché into a real person. Saying that something isn’t nearly as bad as everyone else did isn’t exactly the most glowing endorsement, but I’m convinced a terrible film could be released in this genre and I’d still probably like it.
To its credit, Reservation Road wastes no time getting right down to business, opening with a horrifyingly realistic tragedy within its first few minutes. What works about this depiction is how the film doesn’t so much show us or tell us about the death 10-year-old Josh Learner (Sean Curley), but lets us instead feel it through through his parents, college professor Ethan (a scruffy, bearded Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly). We never actually hear the words “he’s dead” but we just know it because they know it. Under normal circumstances, an opening like this would just be an excuse for actors to indulge in over-the-top Oscar-baiting hysterics but Phoenix and Connelly are so restrained its scary. It would be irresponsible, not to mention insensitive, to say they act exactly like parents who lost their child (since everyone would react differently), but their believability is off the charts. They put on an acting clinic and what they do in the first twenty minutes help carry this entire story through, even when script problems intrude.
When Josh is tragically killed by a hit and run driver in front of a gas station and both parents, especially Grace, feel the burden of responsibility and guilt. The perpetrator is Dwight Arnow (Mark Ruffalo), a divorced attorney taking his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) home to ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino in a nothing role) after a Red Sox game when he makes the mistake of his life. Rather than stay and take responsibility for what he’s done, Dwight, in a state of panic, flees the scene and this begins a cat-and-mouse game of sorts.
What the film, and Ruffalo’s performance, captures so well about Dwight is that he isn’t an evil person, just a moron who’s screwed up one thing after another in his life, with this just being the latest and biggest. His ex-wife and her new husband justifiably can’t stand him and the only person able to look past his flaws is his own son, who he’s in danger of losing due to his own reckless stupidity.
As played by Ruffalo, it seems Dwight really wants to do the right thing, and many times he comes close to, but his cowardice simply prevents it. Being that Dwight is a lawyer and Ethan is obsessed with bringing to justice the man who ran down his son when the police fail him, the script sets up a very convenient coincidence. You can take a wild guess which lawyer Ethan happens to retain to help him out. If that wasn’t enough, George and Schwartz’s script add another coincidence on top of that involving the wives. If you want to talk hypothetically, I suppose in a town small enough these coincidences could occur, but then if it is wouldn’t it stand to reason Ethan would figure out fairly quickly who was responsible for the crime? Of course now I’m probably analyzing this more deeply than it deserves.
There are plot holes in this big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through but luckily George doesn’t draw attention to them and shows restraint instead, focusing mainly on the human aspect of the story. While Ethan becomes obsessed with finding his son’s killer it’s realistically grounded and he doesn’t come off as a crazed vigilante like Kevin Bacon’s character in Death Sentence.
The rift between Ethan and Grace over their son’s death feels real rather than manufactured and she doesn’t come off as an uncaring nag, but a concerned mother worried her husband is no longer capable of taking care of the child they have left (well played by Elle Fanning). Ethan and Dwight don’t become best buddies (which I expected they would) because Dwight’s constant anguish and guilt over the crime prevents it. George milks this situation for everything its worth as the two men dance around each other and await the moment Ethan will finally put the pieces together. The set-up may be dumb and recall a Lifetime Movie of The Week melodrama but there’s legitimate tension here that builds to an intelligent and exciting climax.
The material notwithstanding, this represents Joaquin Phoenix’s best acting work and it’s at least on par with his performance in Walk The Line. What amazed me was how controlled he remained in even the film’s more ludicrous moments, of which there are plenty. There were so many opportunities for him to fly off the rails but he never did, instead letting Ethan’s pain and anguish simmer.
With the similarly themed House of Sand and Fog and Little Children under her belt, Jennifer Connelly could be considered the reigning queen of the suburban nightmare film. The latter one had so many interesting things going on that at times she almost risked fading into the background. This part is much larger, almost polar opposite and requires her to do much more heavy lifting emotionally. As usual, she delivers and both her and Phoenix’s roles could have been so mishandled if played by other less talented performers. Ruffalo is just as strong and has the most challenging role of the three since he’s asked to do some admittedly silly things to service the film’s plot. Sorvino is completely wasted and given nothing to do, which is a shame, but hurts it her more than the picture.
This film may have fallen short in its quest to impress Oscar voters but the three main performances in it did warrant serious consideration. But 2007 was an unusually strong year for dark dramas so this would have probably been lost in the shuffle regardless of its problems. It was just a crowded field anyway. It’s almost unfair these actors had to work this hard to overcome the screenplay’s deficiencies but I’m glad they did. It’s a reminder of just how good they are and the reason this is worth watching. Reservation Road didn’t stand a chance during awards season but it sure is much better than it got credit for.