“Reservation Road” falls victim to a common affliction of parallel-action narratives: One story is far more meaningful and emotionally affecting than the other. Director Terry George’s latest film is about how grief, guilt and introspection emerge in two men involved in a fatal accident. It tries to mix an intensely internalized Mark Ruffalo performance with Joaquin Phoenix’s scenes, which descend into a contrived haze of investigatory paranoia. It’s a character drama mistakenly reworked as a tense thriller.
While driving his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) home from a baseball game, Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) swerves his car and kills Josh Learner (Sean Curley), the young son of Ethan (Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly). Dwight panics and drives away unidentified. The beginning is raw and unflinching, shot with a jarring series of cuts and ending with a mournful image of Josh’s body seen from a car window slumped on the ground. Subsequently, Dwight faces his profound inner turmoil, while Ethan, dissatisfied with the stalled police investigation, begins his own quest for justice.
The screenplay convincingly portrays the extreme swings in emotion felt by both sides, understanding that some days are better than others for people coping with tragedy. The relationship between Ethan and Grace feels especially honest. As Ethan turns to vigilantism, Grace finds a way to persevere for the benefit of surviving daughter Emma (Elle Fanning). Similarly, Dwight has days when he is almost able to forget his horrendous mistake but most of the time, he remains entrenched in a morass of shame and fear.
Ruffalo perfectly embodies that devastating psychological conflict. He maintains a perpetually uncomfortable facial expression and notably pensive demeanor that, even in Dwight’s happiest moments, suggest the inescapable stain on his conscience and attendant self-loathing. It’s brilliantly effective, visceral acting and one wonders how substantially the film would have been affected had it focused entirely on him.
George makes a major structural mistake in developing Phoenix’s scenes. The director employs a thriller aesthetic with lots of close-ups of the actor’s disturbed visage as he trawls for information on the perpetrator. This detracts from the evolution of the Learner family dynamic and is more fitting for a story of obsessive revenge. Further muddling matters is an unconvincing plot twist in which Phoenix hires Ruffalo as his lawyer, growing mildly suspicious as his calls are ignored. The plot hurtles toward a climactic showdown that would have been appropriate for a story in which good and bad were concisely and explicitly defined, but feels tacked on and exploitative in a work that otherwise holds a nuanced view of human nature.