I’ve got a back-log of posts that I need to write up and/or finish. First and foremost, I’ve been meaning to talk about a really good film that I unfortunately missed in theaters but caught on DVD. Reservation Road features Mark Ruffalo (who can really do no cinematic wrong) and Joaquin Phoenix (take him or leave him) as two fathers whose lives become increasingly tangled after a fatal hit-and-run accident.Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) and Ethan Learner (Phoenix) live in a small Connecticut town, and as the film opens, Dwight is at a Red Sox game with his son, Lucas, while Ethan watches his son, Josh, play in a music recital. As they leave their respective family outings, we quickly realize that the two are destined to connect. As Ethan stops for gas, Josh gets out of the car to release some fireflies that he had captured earlier. Dwight just happens to be speeding around this same gas station, drops his cell phone, swerves into on-coming traffic as he picks it up, and veers back into the shoulder of the road, striking and killing Josh. Rather than stopping, Dwight speeds off and hides his SUV in his garage. The majority of the film follows Dwight as he copes with his guilt and Ethan as he copes with his grief. Ethan quickly takes the initiative to find his son’s killer as he believes the police have lost interest in his case. He visits chat rooms and online communities of victims of hit-and-run accidents whose members only fuel his vendetta.
Dwight and Ethan’s coincidental connections begin to catch up to them and lead to Ethan’s unraveling of the case. Dwight’s ex-wife just happens to be Ethan’s daughter’s music teacher. When Ethan visits her house to pick up Emma, he sees a picture of Dwight and Lucas standing in front of a grill-guarded SUV which Dwight no longer drives. Ethan quickly recognizes Dwight because, in pursuing a lawyer for his case, he just happened to pick Dwight’s firm who assigned Dwight to the case.
Ethan purchases a pistol and sets out for revenge. He kidnaps Dwight and drives him out to the middle of nowhere. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, Dwight wrests the pistol away from Ethan and begins to weep. He puts the barrel of the gun to his head and begins to sob. “Is this what you want,” he asks Ethan. “Tell me to pull the trigger, and I’ll do it because I’m dead already.” Dwight’s guilt finally overcomes him, and he collapses into a weeping, apologetic heap on the ground. The film ends as Lucas watches Dwight’s taped confession.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic par excellence, from The Chicago Reader put it most succinctly, “The setup is more than a little far-fetched, but the real meat of this film is moral paradox: how the lawyer, eaten up by guilt, becomes a better father to his own son while the professor ultimately neglects his daughter and wife (Jennifer Connelly) in his obsessive pursuit. For the film to work (and for me it did), we have to shift our sympathy gradually from the professor to the lawyer.” For me, this just exhibits one of the most effective characteristics of film…it’s ability to elicit this type of sympathy for “wrong-doers” through sustained engagement with the character’s thoughts and emotions when hypothetical discussions simply fall short. Most critics trashed the film, and while it might take some “logical” shortcuts, the emotional conclusion is certainly a positive payoff.
Reservation Road (102 mins.) is available on DVD and is rated R.