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Reservation Road
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Imagine "House Of Sand And Fog" Sans The Whimsy"
2 stars

“Reservation Road” offers us the opportunity of spending two hours of our lives witnessing two seemingly happy families self-destructing in the wake of a horrific and almost unthinkable tragedy. This might not sound like a lot of fun on the surface but in the right hands, I can see how such a premise could have inspired a haunting and thoughtful meditation on loss, grief and the desire for revenge. Alas, despite the presence of an excellent cast, the film is little more than an especially egregious example of emotional torture porn that puts its characters (and the audience) through the wringer not because it has something profound to say, but because it hopes that enough people will mistake its depressing aspects for profundity and eventually give it a shot in this year’s Oscar derby.

The opening scenes intercut two families enjoying a leisurely weekend day. The Learner family–father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), mother Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and younger daughter Emma (Elle Fanning)–are enjoying a musical recital featuring the cello stylings of older son Josh (Sean Curley) while Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is taking in a Red Sox game with his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson) before returning him to estranged ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino). That evening, the Learners stop off at a gas station and Josh, being the sensitive type, chooses this opportunity to follow Mom’s advice and set free a bunch of fireflies that he captured for his sister. At that same moment, a frustrated Dwight, who is running late on returning a sleeping Lucas to Ruth, lets his attention wander and he plows into Josh, killing him instantly, before speeding away into the night.

The Learners are devastated by their loss, none more so than Ethan, who witnessed the accident but didn’t get a close enough look at the driver to make an identification. While Grace and Emma struggle to cope with Josh’s death, Ethan becomes obsessed with the notion of finding the perpetrator and bringing him to justice. When the cops seem to be putting the case on the back burner because of the lack of clues or evidence, Ethan takes it upon himself to further the investigation as a way of assuaging his guilt over being unable to protect his son. As for Dwight, his initial relief about not getting caught soon give way to his own sense of overwhelming guilt about what he has and hasn’t done. This sense of guilt is intensified when he discovers that the boy he killed was one of Ruth’s star pupils and that she has chosen to help tutor Emma in music as a way of assuaging her own grief and guilt. Of course, that is nothing compared to what he feels when he walks into the law offices where he works and is introduced to his newest client–Ethan, who is hoping to build a civil case against the person who killed Josh.

It was at this point in the film, maybe a third of the way in, that I finally gave up any hope of “Reservation Road” working as the kind of Raymond Carver-influenced drama that it clearly wants to be. This is because it became clear that “Reservation Road” was not going to be a meditation on loss, grief and the dark desire for revenge–it was simply going to be a soap opera in which the emphasis was going to be on the various plot convolutions (such as the moment when Ethan finally figures out that Dwight was the one responsible for his son’s death) and a number of barely believable coincidences (the paths of the main characters cross so often throughout the film that it feels as if they are the only people living in the state of Connecticut) instead of dealing with the characters in a realistic and believable manner. Oh sure, the film plays around at being a character study here and there but those moments are few and far between for the majority of the picture and are abandoned completely during the finale in order to concentrate on Ethan’s half-assed revenge plans.

“Reservation Road” is the kind of movie that clearly wants to inspire viewers to ask themselves a lot of questions. At what point does the pursuit of justice turn into an obsession with vengeance? If your child was killed in such a horrible manner, how far would you go in your pursuit of justice. If you did the killing and no one realized that you were responsible, would you be able to keep quiet and continue living your life or would the guilt eventually become too much to bear. However, while watching the film, I found myself inspired to ask an entirely different series of questions. Why bother casting two excellent actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo and then present them with such utterly one-dimensional roles to play? Why bother casting two excellent and award-winning actresses like Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino and then give them roles that are so blandly conceived that they don’t even achieve one dimension? Wasn’t there some way of telling this story without resorting to one unbelievable coincidence after another to keep the story moving along? Finally, if you discover that your lawyer is responsible for the death of your child and you lock him in your car trunk as part of your wild plan to finally gain some small measure of justice, is the time he spends in the trunk still considered to be billable hours? Finally, why would anyone want to sit through a turgid and unbelievable drama like this when you could rent Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” and watch a film that tells more or less the same story with far more grace and intelligence and without the histrionics on display in this one?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16357&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/19/07 11:48:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 08-Apr-2008



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