Reservation Road was shot, and takes place, in and around Stamford, Connecticut. I live in Stamford, Connecticut. Joaquin Phoenix plays a bearded husband and father of two. I'm a bearded husband and father of two. Phoenix's college professor Ethan Learner is married to Jennifer Connelly. Were it not for my beloved wife, I would like to be married to Jennifer Connelly. And yet despite such powerful similarities between this on-screen fiction and my own life, there's almost nothing identifiably realistic about Terry George's adaptation of John Burnham Schwartz's novel, which seems determined, whenever possible, to resort to preposterous plot twists at the expense of actually plumbing its grief-stricken characters' anguished psyches. As with his previous Hotel Rwanda, the director tackles a grave dramatic subject - here, a child's death and the ensuing desire for revenge - only to skirt around unpleasant truths, feigning interest in the personal cost of retribution for both victim and victimizer while gorging himself on portentous music and encouraging overcooked histrionics from his cast. The resultant nonsense is In the Bedroom redux, but squishier and stupider.
On the way home from a seaside orchestral concert featuring their cellist son Josh (Sean Curley), Ethan (Phoenix) and Grace (Connelly), along with older daughter Emma (Elle Fanning), stop to fill up the family SUV at a gas station. While everyone else is distracted, Josh follows mom's advice to release some captured fireflies from a jar, a decision that proves fatal when lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) and his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson), returning home late from a Red Sox game, come speeding around the corner and, thanks to a distracting cell phone call, hit the boy. Dwight, already upset about his ex-wife Ruth's (Mira Sorvino) nagging, panics and drives away, leaving Ethan and Grace to pick up the pieces of a now-shattered life. This cataclysmic narrative catalyst is Reservation Road's finest scene, due largely to Phoenix and Connelly's horrified reactions to the tragedy at hand, which have a dumbstruck numbness that - when matched by their artless husband-wife rapport - captures not only agony but also the way in which people, in times of crisis, subtly attempt to protect fellow loved ones. Their authenticity is bracing, even more so given that George stages the scene with clunky crosscutting that diminishes, rather than heightens, the sudden, shocking impact of the catastrophe.
This initial directorial misstep is an ominous sign of things to come. George knows not how to properly utilize the widescreen frame, squandering most opportunities for compositional tension, and he compensates for his drab visuals with blundering musical cues. Nonetheless, the unrelenting score is strangely apt for a film this gracelessly manipulative. With the police unable to locate the hit-and-run perpetrator, Ethan soon succumbs to his Jodie Foster-The Brave One impulses, alienating himself from his wife and daughter - who, despite Connolly's unaffected performance, are quickly consigned to the background - in favor of chat rooms and blogs where kindred victims stoke Ethan's flames of fury with comments like, "There's no justice in the court system. There's only the law." Ethan becomes increasingly hellbent on taking matters into his own hands, and Reservation Road makes it easy for him to satisfy such urges through embarrassingly contrived plotting, in which Ruth turns out to be the music teacher for Emma, and Ethan goes to hire an attorney and, lo and behold, walks right into Dwight's office. This last development is pure, unadulterated "It's a small world!" nonsense, though in its favor, it does afford Ruffalo the opportunity to flash the worst poker face in the history of mankind.
We know Ethan is righteously angry because he sits, knees to chest, in a dark room by himself, and we know that Dwight is tormented by both his crime and subsequent refusal to take responsibility because we see him awaken on a couch next to a coffee table adorned with overflowing ashtrays and a half-empty bottle of vodka. What's less knowable, however, is how such a talented cast didn't burst out laughing in the face of the story's procession of convenient coincidences, which eventually become so pronounced that one half-expects Dwight to just start dropping Freudian slips about his culpability while in Ethan's presence. Phoenix's nearly inarticulate growling during the everything-comes-to-a-head climax - forcefully conveying the depth of his all-consuming rage - almost makes up for a scene in which he takes pictures of a Saudi diplomat's suspiciously dented SUV (a lame attempt to reference US-Arab tensions), as well as the hogwash finale, in which everyone does right by, as well as comes to intimately understand, everyone else. The idea that George thinks his schematic, fatuous melodrama deeply probes the nature and ramifications of vengeance, however, is just about unfathomable.