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Reservation Road

A Road Worth Traveling for the Performances Alone

Directed and co-written by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and based on a novel by John Burnham Schwartz (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Reservation Road explores the unintended emotional and personal consequences of a hit-and-run on two families. As a psychological drama, Reservation Road won't win any awards for originality, but if it does win any, it'll be for its strong ensemble cast and, in particular, riveting performances by two of the best actors of their respective generations, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. They give raw, authentic performances, the kind that get name-checked during awards season and are, thus, worth watching on the big or small screen.

Reservation Road opens in late September, 2004, as the Boston Red Sox made their improbable run to a World Series championship. Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), a college professor, and his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), return home from their son Josh's (Sean Curley) outdoor recital -- Josh is a talented, promising cellist. Ethan and his family stop at a gas station for a quick break on their way home.

Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a small-town lawyer and father, is on his way back from a Boston Red Sox game with his son, Lou (Eddie Alderson). Divorced and with only limited custody of his son, Dwight rushing back from Fenway Park, is temporarily blinded on Reservation Road. He swerves and runs over something in the road. Dwight panics and flees the scene. In the aftermath, Ethan only gets a quick glance of the driver wearing a baseball cap and a dark-colored SUV.

Ethan, shattered by his loss, first seeks the help of the state police, but soon realizes that the hit-and-run-driver isn't likely to be found, at least not based on his inexact description of the driver or the driver's car. Ethan then decides to hire an attorney to spur the investigation. By coincidence, he seeks out Dwight's law firm. The guilt-stricken Dwight is immediately assigned to help Ethan. As Ethan's grief turns into obsession and Dwight's guilt and constant lying wear him down, confrontation between the two men seems inevitable and potentially fatal for one or both.

Unfortunately, the dramatic “road” in Reservation Road is as linear and narrow as they come. The film methodically follows Ethan and Dwight, dramatic turn by dramatic turn, emotional beat by emotional beat, until Ethan discovers the identity of the hit-and-run driver. In fact, the subject matter alone seems perfect for network or cable television. Reservation Road seriously falters, however, by the over-reliance on increasingly implausible coincidences, each more contrived than the last. Removing just one or two coincidences would have made the movie easier to accept dramatically.

However, what distinguishes Reservation Road from earnestly made, dully executed television fodder is Terry George's unobtrusive direction and the committed, convincing performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. Phoenix and Ruffalo are impressive, giving their characters desperately tortured inner lives through nuanced facial gestures and body language that few actors can pull off without looking like they're, in fact, "acting". Phoenix begins his performance sympathetically, portraying a character overwhelmed by grief and loss with a rawness that's almost difficult to watch. Ruffalo's character begins as one of those hard-luck cases that, at least on the surface, blames everyone else for his failures and disappointments, but over the course of the film, grows into accepting responsibility for his actions.

In supporting roles, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, as Dwight's wife Ruth, do everything that the screenplay asks of them, but not much more. Connelly has little to do except express grief at the loss of her son, and increasing frustration and anger at Ethan's growing obsession. Connelly's role is, at times, underwritten, her dialogue outdated. Sorvino as Ruth has even less to do and seems wasted in a role with only minimal screen time.

That aside, Reservation Road is still worth watching, if primarily for Phoenix and Ruffalo’s performances and George's nuanced direction of the material that could have easily veered into melodrama, but thankfully never does.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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