Hit and runs continue to be a disturbing facet of civilization, a polarizing incident that claims a victim and puts the other person on the wrong side of the law. It could happen to anyone; you come around a corner too fast, you drop something on the floor, you simply don't see what's ahead or who's stepping into the street. Suddenly, a pedestrian or driver is dead, and the inflicting party must make a decision: stop and help, or continue driving. It is here that society draws its line, and for good reason. But when a driver flees after hitting someone or something, society immediately assumes that person is a monster, someone who lacks a moral code or compassion. One would hope that upon hitting someone, the driver would stop, but many things must go shoot through the mind in a split second upon realizing what has happened. Panic, hysteria and fear override even the most innocent of people's rational instincts. Should society condone someone leaving a crime scene, even in a fit of panic? No. But does leaving a crime scene automatically mean that that person is an immoral monster? That's what Reservation Road explores.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Dwight Arno, a lawyer and loving father going through a difficult custody battle. After coming home from a rare night out with his son, he is speeding home to avoid the wrath of his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino), when a split second mistake causes him to swerve off the road and strike a child standing on the side of the road. He pauses, considering to stop to help, and then drives on, out of panic, out of fear for losing his own son forever and so on and so forth. That decision, in a blink of an eye, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, back at the side of the road, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) watches as his son is killed instantly by a dark-colored SUV. The SUV drives on while Ethan's wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) realizes what has happened.
The happy family is suddenly descended into Hell, as they must cope with the loss of their boy and the growing suspicion that the police are never going to find the man who so blatantly killed him. As time goes on and Ethan's life unravels before his eyes, he becomes obsessed with finding the killer. He seeks out a lawyer to help him in his cause. Little does he know that this lawyer, whose name is Dwight Arno, is the very man that he is searching for. As Dwight watches Ethan's desperation, he himself becomes aware of the guilt and paranoia that is pressing down on his very soul. There is no easy way out.
Reservation Road is a sad and well-acted drama that takes a clear, cut-and-dry issue and turns it into an utterly gray one. The movie never disputes the fact Dwight is the wrong, but just what should be his punishment? Is the guilt of killing a child enough? Is fear of losing one's own family justification for fleeing the scene? At the very least, is Dwight Arno a bad person for what he did? I'm a sucker for movies that take a social issue and turn it on its head, and director and co/write Terry George succeeds in doing so. He gives nearly equal weight to both sides of the coin, establishing a realistic dynamic in regards to what two such characters would go through. The gimmick is that George thrusts the two together in the most awful of coincidences, but it is a necessary evil to keep their stories intimate and high strung.
Both Phoenix and Ruffalo deliver very good performances, though Ruffalo gets the shining star. Phoenix acts his heart out, but it is Ruffalo who the majority can more easily relate with. This may be a surprising development, but watching Phoenix spiral out of control and go on a personal hunt for his son's killer is a very specific and localized characterization; while believable, even others in the same situation may not act the same way. On the other hand, Ruffalo plays someone who has simply made a mistake and knows that the guilt is going to eat away at him until he comes forward. Admitting the truth can be harder than it should be, and everyone can relate to this to some degree or another. Hopefully not too many people reading this review are on either end of a hit-and-run incident, but regardless, Ruffalo relays his pain and anguish in a way that makes it easy to understand his situation. We don't have to like it and we don't even have to agree with it, but we understand it.
Connelly also does a pretty good job in a supporting role, though with the exception of one or two scenes, she is meant to be more of a rock to Phoenix's chaotic nature than a unique and fully developed person.
Reservation Road is not perfect by any means, though it is a victim of its own success. The movie is about two opposing characters, neither of whom are by nature bad people. But the movie has to go somewhere, and it turns into a who-will-go-the-farthest guessing game. Again, Phoenix's character is believable, but it's still a stretch to relate to a man who is willing to take matters into his own hands in the way that he does. George takes the movie down the most satisfying path he can give to his viewers - an eventual confrontation - but this same path is ultimately disappointing. George can hardly be faulted for this, as his movie almost inevitably had to go this route, but it is a film that cannot have a satisfying ending no matter what happens.
Furthermore, George opens up his film to comparisons to two greater films, In the Bedroom and Mystic River. Both are more crime-driven than the film in question, but Reservation Road does share some similarities. Reservation Road is not as powerful as those movies, and this is a strike against it.
Despite suffering from an unavoidable, not-quite-astounding ending, Reservation Road is an engaging and well done film that has you choosing sides - and not necessarily the side you'd expect or want to choose. The movie isn't amazing, but it is still a quality drama featuring several of the best actors working today.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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