Reservation Road

Reservation Road


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

The gentle harmonies accompany the sunny vista of a sedate harbour town. There are white weatherboard houses, a safe-looking high street, the schoolchildren are playing their cellos at an open-air concert. The parents look on adoringly, their music begins and gnff… mmffmm… can’t… words sticking… scenes too cloying.

Reservation Road’s beginning is standard made-for-TV matinee stuff and at first its plot isn’t that much better.

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Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Emma Learner (Jennifer Connelly) are a happily married couple with 2.4 children. Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is a divorced lawyer who sees his young son every weekend. Late to return the kid to his ex-wife, Dwight is speeding in his SUV whilst taking calls on his phone. He loses control momentarily, long enough to plough into Ethan and Emma’s own son on the side of the road. Dwight knows what he’s done but speeds off, leaving Ethan and Emma to deal with the devastating fall out of his hit and run. Ethan becomes frustrated at the police’s lack of investigative success and while his grief alienates his family, he finds chatroom solace with similarly aggrieved parents.

So far, so Sunday afternoon, until the script from director Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz (based on his novel) starts to dwell as much on the guilt-tortured Dwight as the doleful parents. It’s a calculated move to balance out the stereotypical victims by taking a humanising approach to the perpetrator as well. When angry Ethan then innocuously hires Dwight to take on his stalling case it’s a further promise of some new twists around an old idea.

Unfortunately, Reservation Road is really only ever going from A to B and, despite the offer of some intriguing ideas, never moves far from its initial premise. You’re just unable to invest enough conviction in events, so when they finally reach a conclusion it feels too mechanically manoeuvred to deliver the requisite emotional pay off. Surely a failing for a film dealing with the harrowing death of a young boy. The film’s ‘safe’ beginning feels a little less uncomfortable by the time you’re consciously waiting for the end. Quick to daub an everyday ordinariness with normal folks, in readiness for the extra-ordinary tragedy, it’s still painting by numbers and unconvincing, and the same heavy-handed brush strokes are applied throughout.

Despite the best efforts of Phoenix’s enormous beard, Ethan and Emma are resolutely one-dimensional characters. Both Phoenix and Connelly are talented players who fully inflate into what room they’re given; it’s just not very much. Working with a more conflicted role, Ruffalo avoids the melodrama and overplaying far longer than anyone else to deliver the strongest performance by far. This, and his big and small fare, such as Zodiac and My Life Without Me, prove Ruffalo has become the go-to-guy for solid character acting.

George and Schwartz ponder loss, redemption, empathy and the need for everyone, on any side of an action or incident, to work with conscience. They’re undoubtedly earnest, as is their storytelling, albeit perhaps more synthetic than they would have intended. Despite being stylishly and somberly framed throughout, Reservation Road is still a disappointment from the director of Hotel Rwanda.

Reviewed on: 20 Dec 2007
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Two fathers cope with the consequences of tragedy.
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Director: Terry George

Writer: Terry George, John Burnham Schwartz

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mia Sorvino

Year: 2007

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US


London 2007

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