Fathers, beware of gas stations late at night. Your sons are not safe there, the movies say. If you’re not unwittingly surrendering the dear boy’s life to some gangbangers’ callously murderous initiation ritual, as Kevin Bacon recently did in Death Sentence, you’re unwittingly surrendering him to the front end of Mark Ruffalo’s hurtling Ford Explorer, as Joaquin Phoenix does in Reservation Road.
You’re ruined either way, yes, so maybe just consider filling up the tank before you leave, before dark? Otherwise, if you must bring the lad with you to a gas station late at night, and tragedy befalls you there, and then justice eludes you, and revenge tempts you, or conscience rankles you, well, don’t say the movies didn’t warn you.
Reservation Road, like Death Sentence before it, was a novel first, and seems similarly to have suffered the magnification of ridiculousness that film adaptation sometimes brings. Unlike the latter, though, this is a picture of good breeding. Rather than just another one-dimensional they-made-me-a-vigilante movie, this is, um, just another two-dimensional trudge of solemnity, delicately extracted from only the best stock of irritatingly respectable literary fiction. Swell.
The book is by John Burnham Schwartz, who adapted it himself, with director Terry George. It takes place in an unreliable idyll of coastal Connecticut, a land of outdoor oceanside classical-music concerts performed by gifted (if doomed) children, of catching fireflies in jars, of other children’s eager road trips with dad to Boston for Red Sox playoff games. And, naturally, it’s a land of semi-sordid crises of conscience, slowly coming to a boil underneath all the quaint clapboards and manicured lawns.
That’s where Ruffalo and Phoenix come in, each in top form, but also in a comfort zone. Ruffalo plays a divorced father apparently so concerned about maintaining occasional custody of his young son that he keeps driving after running over someone else’s. He’s also an attorney, and that will matter (albeit preposterously). Phoenix, a heretofore complacent college professor, has the bad fortune of seeing his own little boy’s life snuffed out—but not quite seeing the man responsible, whose departure from the scene rattles the grieving father beyond his own comprehension. Later, when it seems like the police aren’t helping, he wanders cyberspace in search of advice and support, and wanders the town in search of suspicious SUVs. So, will he venture into vigilantism? Ruffalo, meanwhile, tries to hide, twisting himself into a tangle of craven anguish. The movie is about their parallel but opposite emotional arcs, which it hopes to elaborate through a transference of audience sympathies: As guilt devours one man from within, the other shrinks to fit his own bitterness. Each is groping for a way to do right by his son.
This will require a certain sheen of ersatz sophistication. It will require Jennifer Connelly. She plays the stunned wife from whom Phoenix pulls away—prone to eruptions of guilt and rage, plus the requisite glassy-eyed indications of fear and compulsory detachment. Connelly’s such a natural at this sort of thing (see also Little Children, another well-bred adaptation of respectable literary fiction, itself pretty much insufferable) that casting her seems almost as cynical as running down a child just to stage a protracted Phoenix-Ruffalo angst-off. Still, the movie’s rawest, realest scene occurs not between the two men, but when Phoenix and Connelly, as the mourning parents, finally, mercilessly, tear each other apart. (Mira Sorvino’s in the mix, too, as Ruffalo’s estranged wife and the dead boy’s music teacher, but the movie barely allow her enough footing to make a real contribution.)
Half a century ago, this setup could make for great Hitchcock: the men’s complicated charisma, at once virile and vulnerable, the cruel-fate melodrama of collided lives and brittle family bonds, set oh-so-tastefully within (and, vaguely, against) a discernibly refined environment. Hitch at least would nail the wry joke of stocking that comely suburban Nutmeg-State landscape with guilty-looking SUVs. But director George, whose last movie was Hotel Rwanda, obviously isn’t inclined to play. For lack of any singular style, beyond reverence of the source material and deferment to the actors, he gets through with overly heavy naturalism-by-default. The way Reservation Road deflates revenge-picture expectations is by simply deflating.
And by posing as a thoughtful alternative to the likes of Death Sentence—which only makes it more bothersome that this movie, too, can’t do without killing a kid at a gas station late at night.