In 'Reservation Road,' an overdose of woe

Director Terry George's new film follows two families, struggling to cope in the wake of massive tragedy.

A powerful premise does not necessarily make for a good movie. "Reservation Road," for example, has a doozy of a premise. It focuses on the parallel stories of two New England fathers, one of whom kills the other's son in a hit-and-run accident. You can't get much more elemental than that.

On his way back from a student summer concert, 10-year-old Josh Learner, son of Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly), is accidentally hit near the gas station where his family has stopped. The driver of the Ford Explorer, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), who was racing back with his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson), from a Red Sox game, spends most of the movie agonizing over the accident without actually doing anything about divulging his guilt.

Ethan's already shaky marriage is rocked to the core. His frustration with the dawdling police investigation leads him to seek out the help of a local attorney, who proves to be none other than Dwight. (Prior to this point the two men had never met.) This is the kind of plot development that only a screenwriter's mother could love. (The script, co-written by director Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz, is based on Schwartz's novel.)

The filmmakers are mistaken in believing that simply by showing us people in pain, we too will be pained. The spectacle of grief unleavened by any real psychological depth is tedious, not cathartic. Ruffalo is a marvelous actor but this role, at least as written, affords him no opportunity to be anything other than a big inchoate ball of woe. You rally for him to confess not because it's the right thing to do, but just to get it over with. Forget Dwight's misery. How about putting us out of our misery?

Phoenix has the showier role, but he also overdoses on woe. His performance, like Ruffalo's, is disastrously unmodulated. This is true of the entire cast. George keeps his actors, which includes Mira Sorvino as Dwight's testy ex-wife, on a very short leash. "Reservation Road" is all elemental all the time.

As the movie wound down, I began dreading the inevitable moment when Ethan figures out Dwight's story and goes for his throat. There's only so much primal screaming one can take from a movie.

There is no reason why "Reservation Road" could not have been great. George has co-written some powerful films in the past, including two for Daniel Day-Lewis, "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer." He is not wrong to want to mainline intensity here, but the inner lives of these men have not been explored, only displayed. Grade: C–

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