Review: “Reservation Road” (2007)

reservation_roadBy all rights, Terry George’s “Reservation Road” should be a 2 a.m. Lifetime Television weeper. All the trappings are there — a freak car accident that turns into an unsolved hit-and-run case; a grieving father who sees closure only in revenge; a driver whose sanity is buckling under the weight of what he’s scrambled to cover up — just waiting to be exploited shamelessly. But here’s the real shocker: That … never … happens. “Reservation Road” is no crudely simplified fable with a villain and a hero and a gift-wrapped ending; it’s not that kind of movie. No, what happens here is complex, delicate and deliberate. Don’t expect to walk away unshaken. 

Of course, part of what makes “Reservation Road” so compelling is the (admittedly) hokey-sounding crisis at its center: Driving home from a late Red Sox game with his son, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) veers off the highway and rams into a child on the roadside at a gas station, killing the 10-year-old boy while his father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) watches, too shocked to remember the car or the driver’s face. Dwight, without quite knowing what he’s doing, drives away, leaving Ethan, his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter with a dead body and no answers.

All of this happens very early, and there’s a reason for those emotionally punishing first 10 minutes: These events provide a framework for the rest of “Reservation Road,” which grows more unsettling each minute. The pile of coincidences is a stretch — or is it? In a small town, is it so hard to believe that the victim and the criminal might know each other? Have kids in the same school? Maybe George pushes this angle a bit too hard, makes it a bit too unsubtle, but perhaps this is necessary to pull us in. After all, nothing about this film is easy because “Reservation Road” splits us right down the center, forces us t0 see humanity in the criminal (a divorced dad afraid to lose partial custody of his son), demons in the wronged man (whose grief takes him to an ugly place). To identify with one man is to identify with the other. Phoenix and Ruffalo’s gut-wrenching performances ensure this much.

Oh, and speaking of the performances: Many argue that the faceoff of 2007 was DiCaprio/Damon in “The Departed.” Hardly. What Phoenix and Ruffalo do in “Reservation Road” lays waste to that claim. These two pour themselves into roles that require a frightening amount of emotional energy. Phoenix, who specializes in surly intensity, shows how close resignation can be to blind rage. He takes Ethan’s sadness to a place no one can touch, not even his wife (Connelly, who’s more nakedly emotional than ever). “How do I get you back?” she asks. Damned if Ethan knows, either, and Phoenix makes this internal confusion hard to watch but impossible to ignore. Unglued, too, is Ruffalo’s Dwight, whose decision to leave the scene sticks in his subconscious like a hunting knife in the gut. He can’t shake the guilt. Credit must go to Ruffalo, one of the finest actors out there, for not reducing Dwight to weepy, drunken heap. Ruffalo is too smart, too intuitive an actor to make that mistake. Instead he gives us a man who is slowly unravelling, who knows more with each day that he did much more than kill a child: he killed himself.

And so “Reservation Road” leave us with a whole mess of unanswered questions. Dwight takes a life, reacts badly and suffers dearly for it. But does he suffer enough? Can he ever suffer enough? Does he deserve to die? Would his death give Ethan the kind of closure he wants and needs? Don’t expect an eleventh-hour hug, a Kleenex or a cheat sheet. “Reservation Road” offers no comfort and no answers … which, in an odd way, makes the film something of a miracle. 

Grade: A-

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