Reservation Road

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- "Reservation Road" paints itself into a corner, creating a static situation in which everyone is either stymied or wracked by indecision, leaving the movie free for its two male leads to wallow in self-pity, remorse and bad behavior. A fatal hit-and-run accident provides a terrible intersection in the lives of two families, but to sustain the movie as a "dramatic thriller" the callous driver, played by Mark Ruffalo in a sweaty-palms performance, cannot stop or turn himself in for weeks until the grieving father, Joaquin Phoenix, has driven himself into a homicidal frenzy.

Neither situation is particularly appetizing to watch nor do two extremely unlikely coincidences help matters. "Reservation Road" reps a very tough sell for Focus Features as the film gets caught somewhere between domestic weep-athon and revenge melodrama.

Audience sympathy never finds a natural outlet in this troubling drama, scripted by director Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz, based on Schwartz's novel of the same name. The moment Ruffalo's attorney Dwight Arno, coming home from a late-season Red Sox game with his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson), fails to stop after slamming into 10-year-old Josh (Sean Curley) next to a Connecticut gas station, he loses any sympathy, no matter how messed up his life is.

Josh's parents, college professor Ethan Learner (Phoenix) and wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), face a family's worst nightmare. Gradually though, sympathy slips away here too, at least as far as Ethan is concerned. He shuts down emotionally, estranging himself from his wife and young daughter Emma (Elle Fanning), and spends hours on Internet chat rooms where parents of hit-and-run victims find solace and fuel each other's emotions in unhealthy ways.

Then come the coincidences. Dwight's ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) is the school music teacher to both Josh and Emma. Ethan hires Dwight to represents his legal interests with the state police, whom he rages against for not finding the perpetrator. This is just too small a world.

George wants to enter these characters' lives to investigate how people react to tragedy and motivate themselves to seek revenge. But these characters make poor candidates. Dwight seems to be a fellow who just naturally blames everything and everybody for his woes. His reasons for leaving the scene of the accident are never very clear. He mumbles something about worrying about losing his son, who was asleep when the accident occurred and unaware anyone was hit. But Dwight has not been drinking and it is an accident. Making him a lawyer only exacerbates the lameness of his behavior.

Ethan seems a steady, well-balanced guy but his wheels come off quickly. He is stubborn and abrupt when his wife tries to reach out to him. He seems to wear his son's death as a badge of self-righteous pride. His obsession with the hunt for the driver becomes its own kind of denial, something to cling to in a desperate need to distract himself from his son's death.

All these human reactions can be justified and possibly even excused. But they don't make for high drama, and the thriller aspect to the movie feels half-hearted at best. Even when Ethan searches the Internet for a gun, you don't anticipate a new "Death Wish."

George's production team has put together a bucolic, suburban New England backdrop to this tale of misery and frustration while Mark Isham's measured music speaks to the pain beneath its surfaces better, unfortunately, than the melodrama itself.

RESERVATION ROAD
Focus Features
A Focus Features and random House Films presentation of a Nick Wechsler Productions/Miracle Pictures production in association with Volume One Entertainment
Credits:
Director: Terry George
Writers: John Burnham Schwarz, Terry George
Based on the novel by: John Burnham Schwartz
Producers: Nick Wechsler, A. Kitman Ho
Executive producers: Dean M. Leavitt, Gina Renick
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Costume designer: Catherine George
Music: Mark Isham
Editor: Naomi Geraghty
Cast:
Ethan: Joaquin Phoenix
Dwight: Mark Ruffalo
Grace: Jennifer Connelly
Ruth: Mira Sorvino
Emma: Elle Fanning
Lucas: Eddie Alderson
Josh: Sean Curley
Running time -- 102 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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