"Reservation Road" has the makings of a great movie, but midway through it takes a terribly wrong step and never recovers. Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) their daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) and their son Josh (Sean Curley) are leaving a recital which featured Josh on cello. At the same time, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) and his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) are leaving Fenway Park after seeing their beloved Boston Red Sox play. Dwight’s ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) is calling Dwight constantly because Lucas should have been back home hours earlier, but the game went into extra innings. So he’s rushing his son back to the ex-wife’s house in Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Learner family stops at a gas station so Emma can use the bathroom and Josh dashes out of the car to free fireflies Emma has collected in a Mason jar. Just at that moment, Dwight speeds by, his concentration is interrupted by another call from Ruth, he begins to veer into the wrong lane, swerves to miss an oncoming car and then hits and kills Josh. Lucas, who’s been sleeping in the front seat, bangs his head on the dashboard as a result of the collision. For reasons we can’t fathom and later become even more unexplainable, Dwight speeds off instead of stopping to render aid. The rest of the film’s first act focuses on the psychological effect this tragedy has on the Learner family and on Dwight and if the film had the courage to stick with this and deal with it—to really explore it—it might have achieved greatness. Instead, it goes for the far-fetched.
Ethan is determined to find the man responsible for killing his son and keeps pressing the police to do more. When the authorities don’t give him the satisfaction he demands, he decides to take matters into his own hands. First he hires a law firm to maintain pressure on the police (what a law firm could do in this regard is really not explained, but never mind). The law firm he hires just happens to be the one Dwight works for and, of course, Dwight is assigned to the case. Now we discover that Dwight is an attorney which brings me back to the unanserable question of why he left the scene of the accident in the first place. He was not drunk. It clearly was an accident. And, as an attorney, he should know better. But wait, there’s more. As a tribute to her brother, Emma decides to take up where he left off and begins studying music, specifically the piano. Who is her teacher? Why, it’s Ruth, of course. All this is explored in the film’s second act and just when you think there can not be any more implausible coincidences, the screenwriters throw us one more bizarre one, which I won’t go into, that convinces Ethan that Dwight was responsible for his son’s death.
Phoenix and Ruffalo are two of the finest actors working in films today. And they turn in terrific performances in this film. However, their performances can’t avoid the traps set for them by the screenplay. As a result, all we get to do is witness Ethan and Dwight’s separate sorrows, but we never have the opportunity to truly understand them. Grade: D