If it weren't for a few powerful performances from an A-list cast, Reservation Road would venture dangerously close to soapy movie-of-the-week territory.
Reservation Road zeros in on a parent's worst nightmare--the loss of a child. In this case, it's when college professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) lose their 10-year-old son in a hit-and-run accident. The driver of the car is Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a local lawyer who panics and races away once he hits the child. The accident happens so fast that Dwight's own 11-year-old son, who is in the car with him, is all but unaware, while Ethan--the only witness--is all too aware. The police are called, and an investigation begins. Both fathers are very obviously haunted by the tragedy: Ethan becomes increasingly vengeful, hunting the man who did this horrible thing, while Dwight quietly melts down, making confessional tapes for his son to watch after he's in jail. That is, if he ever turns himself in. And you just know there has to be some kind of reckoning, some kind of confrontation, between the two men before the whole thing is over. Certainly sounds like a Lifetime Television event, doesn't it?
With a cast like Phoenix, Ruffalo and Connelly, you know you're in for, at the very least, some compelling performances--a fact that thankfully saves Reservation Road from utter banality. Phoenix is particularly moving as the grieving father, whose transformation into a vigilante is a slow, methodical one. He initially accepts the police investigation but once he realizes how little jail time a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter gets, he starts to simmer with anger. This rage keeps growing the more research he does and the more times he talks with other irate parents in chat rooms, until he is almost uncommunicative with his wife. Connelly does another turn as a beleaguered spouse but does it well. Her Grace grieves in a more healthy way, shutting down for awhile but then realizing she and Ethan still have a younger daughter (played with usual delicacy by Babel's Elle Fanning) to care for. When Grace tries to bring Ethan into the family fold once again, he balksbut eventually comes around. Ruffalo, on the other hand, has difficulty playing Dwight, a guy caught between a rock and a hard place--made even more so when Ethan hires Dwight to help find the hit-and-run perpetrator. It's not necessarily Ruffalo's fault since playing a true coward is hard to do, but the actor only has a few expressions of angst and uses them to excess. Not his best performance, but he certainly doesn't detract.
In watching Reservation Road , one is reminded of how much better the subject matter was handled in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams. In that film, Benicio Del Toro's ex-con-turned-born-again Christian mows down Naomi Watts' husband and two kids and then runs like hell. But watching Del Toro's torment over what he has done, intertwined with how Watts handles her grief, is pure brilliance compared to Reservation Road 's constant back and forth between Dwight's gnashing of teeth and Ethan's emerging vigilantism. Unlike what he did with Hotel Rwanda, director Terry George fails to connect you to the people living near Reservation Road , instead focusing on the mawkishness of such a tragedy. And the contrived plot device of having Dwight's ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) end up teaching piano lessons to the Learners' daughter, just to add that oh-so-needed extra tension for Dwight, is really oh-so-unnecessary. Reservation Road may hit a few chords but overall, there are too many speed bumps to push it past its soap opera nature.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.