Director Terry George
moves swiftly from an African tragedy to an American tragedy with his docile Reservation Road. Adapted from John Burnham Schwartz's novel by George and Schwartz, a hit-and-run accident on the titular length of blacktop becomes a catalyst for a study of grief and anxiety in two American families.
Road opens as Ethan Lerner (Joaquin Phoenix
) and his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly
) watch their son Josh play cello in the school orchestra on a breezy fall evening. At the same time, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo
) and his son Lucas are enjoying a hot dog and a Red Sox game in overtime at Fenway Park. But his team's successful step towards reversing the curse doesn't alleviate Dwight's worry about getting Lucas back to his mother (Mira Sorvino
) on time. While speeding home, Dwight accidentally swerves and hits Josh as the boy is letting some fireflies go outside of a gas station. And Dwight runs. Article continues below
Through AIM, Google, and grief blogs, Ethan submerges himself into the world of other mourning parents, exchanging stories of police negligence and his own inability to cope. Groups like M.A.D.D. and chat rooms for survivors and victims replace Ethan's family as a way of coping. Meanwhile, Dwight silently ruminates on whether and when he should turn himself in, while, in the film's "clever" twist, Ethan retains Dwight's law firm to help with the investigation.
Shot with a tired eye by cinematographer John Lindley (Pleasantville), the film looks and sounds tragic but hardly has the chops to feel tragic. George plays every moment you would expect for maximum mediocrity: the recovering mother yelling at her grieving husband, the inability of the police department to do anything, and the preposterous moment when Ethan keys into Dwight's guilt. The shots of the idyllic Connecticut suburb seem to be lifted from every other white-collar tale of woe and infidelity right down to the opening shot of a pristine marina. No kidding: Even Phoenix's beard looks like it was ordered from an L.L. Bean catalogue.
The actors try their best to wade through the banality with some sense of nuance even when the script's tone is overwrought. Phoenix's wrathful intellectual is most effective in moments of subdued tension: an awkward comment in his media and society class at an unnamed college, the roadside photographing of a dented car. Meanwhile, Ruffalo keeps up his consummate wounded pride, an emotion he has seemingly mastered exteriorly. And one can only hope that Elle Fanning
, who plays Ethan's daughter, doesn't become as annoying as her older sister Dakota
Even more than its lame dissection of white grief, Road has no moments of actual tension for a film that has been called, in many publications, a thriller. The climactic outing of Dwight happens at gunpoint near a lake, not unlike Clint Eastwood
's Mystic River. But where we were morally cornholed by the end of River, the morals are clear and uncomplicated in Road. We know what Ethan will do even before he does.