Thanksgiving marks the season when distributors begin promoting the films they think have chances for end of the year awards, so I was initially intrigued when Focus Features included Reservation Road along with three other quality films I'd previously seen in theaters—Talk to Me, Eastern Promises, and Lust, Caution. Director/writer Terry George had a worthy Hotel Rwanda on his resume and had cast some high powered actors for this project. But my hopes were dashed rapidly as the narrative veered into fodder more suitable for a moralistic made-for-TV "after school special." As good as the actors are, they can't save the script from crashing as the lamest turkey of Focus Features' 2007 portfolio.
George's screenplay is well-intentioned. It deals with moral dilemmas following a tragic car accident—initially with the perpetrator who flees the scene and must wrestle with his conscience and then with the grieving father who relentlessly seeks justice/revenge. But the delivery becomes so ludicrously contrived with unreal co-incidences, and the final payoff is so weak that the only saving point is that it mercilessly ends the film.
The biggest dread I had (without knowing anything of the story besides vague recollections of the trailer) was that we were doomed to see some child get killed in a car accident. The initial setup just screams at the inevitable—Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are attending a cello recital of their son Josh (Sean Curley) with young daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) and are driving home in the early evening. Meanwhile divorced dad Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is cheering on the Red Sox at Fenway with his son Sam (Eddie Alderson) and being hassled by his exwife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) to get Sam back home on time (to avoid violating his custody agreement). The game runs late, so Dwight is rushing a bit too fast around a curve on Reservation Road, and the expected accident happens.
Of course, Dwight is filled with dread and remorse, but he's also afraid of losing his son—so he takes off, fabricating a story that they ran over a log. Meanwhile the Learner family has to deal with the unfathomable grief of losing a child as well as the anger that the driver just left the scene. Without a license plate or a clear view of the SUV and driver, the police don't have much to go on.
That leads to the best part of the film, which is the part that focuses on Dwight, for he's no one dimensional evil dude. Wracked with guilt he still attempts to cover his tracks, but he's clearly deteriorating and having difficulty functioning in his daily lawyer duties. The accident makes him realize even more how precious his son is to him, and he prepares to do the right thing and turn himself in—yet circumstances intervene and he wavers.
Conversely, Ethan can't find a way to go on living with his wife and daughter. Constantly in a fog, he dwells on that fateful night and decides to seek the hit and run driver on his own. He hires a law firm, so you know how this is going down, and this is only one of many heavy handed co-incidences. Just in case you can't discern the grief from acting nuances, Ethan Googles "hit and run" to find an online parental support group that facilitates giant instant messages for easy camera captures. Since the same person is always posting to Ethan at all hours, you have to wonder about her mental health as well.
The film plays as a thriller without a payoff. Within the first 30 minutes, we realize that the two men are on a collision course, so we're just waiting for the inevitable. But it just gets tiresome since the film treads over the same ground multiple times and fails to build any real tension. Hell, even the 2004 playoff run of the Red Sox gets short-changed. The dramatic come from behind victory over the Yankees isn't even mentioned and the World Series coverage is amazingly flat, considering how die-hard both Dwight and his son Sam are supposed to be. But that pretty much matches the entire tone of Reservation Road itself—a forgetable stretch of cinema with a premise far more intriguing than the actual journey.