Like in life itself, things in Hollywood go in cycles, with similarly themed movies often hitting the multiplex around the same time. Usually it happens with summer blockbusters like the summer of '98 when Armageddon and Deep Impact both shared the big screen in hopes of becoming the victor in the war of the "giant boulder hitting earth pictures". How about instead of making two variations on the same thing, Hollywood could focus on one really good one. Nah, that's too much to ask.
The early September through November theatrical slate has seen its fair share of revenge/vigilante movies, from Death Sentence (man seeking justice for the unjust killing of his son), to The Brave One (a woman seeking revenge for the killing of her fiancé), to the latest entry, Reservation Road, which – you guessed it – deals with a man seeking his own justice, both from the legal system and from the man who committed an unspeakable act against his family.
On a seemingly normal day, Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connely) Learner and their son Josh and daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) are on their way home from a family outing after musical prodigy Josh has given a performance. It's late at night and Emma has to use the bathroom so they make a quick stop at a nearby gas station. Elsewhere, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is rushing to get his son back to his ex-wife who has been constantly calling him for the last few hours after the baseball game they were watching put Dwight in danger of violating a custody agreement. He's speeding along the same road not paying too much attention when his SUV suddenly hits Josh, killing him instantly. Not knowing what to do and being in a state of shock, he flees the scene of the crime, leaving Ethan and Grace to pick up the pieces.
Dwight is immediately shattered, but the fear of losing his son to his ex-wife leads him to cover his tracks, both to his son and later by hiding his own vehicle in his garage and hindering the police investigation. Although he tries to hide things, the grief becomes more and more unbearable and he plots out just how to own up to them. At the same time, the Learners are handling the tragedy differently. While Grace accepts it and moves on, Ethan becomes more and more frustrated with the police investigation and begins to take matters into his own hands, first by hiring an attorney and later by doing his own criminal investigation that leads him into his own trouble with the law. Soon, the truth becomes clear to Ethan that families often have to seek their own justice when the law doesn't provide it in hit and run cases.
Reservation Road is the latest film from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George, who has co-written the script with the original novelist John Burnham Schwartz, and is a film that deals with loss and the inability to get justice in the American court system for hit and run accident victims. At least that's what the film should have been about, and only rarely touches on those themes, instead becoming a predictable thriller at almost every turn. Instead of becoming the actors' showcase you know it wants to be with the strong Hollywood cast, it fails to get started on many levels. The movie has a very forced and manipulative feel to it, where actions seem to be advanced by manipulation instead of being allowed to occur naturally. Although the character of Ethan has his suspicions about his lawyer, a fact the audience knows to be wise, the sheer number of connections between the two families is just too much to believe. It's as though every character was written to be connected to every other character without any real need, as it doesn't further the story in any way.
Part of what makes Reservation Road such a disappointment is the talent involved. Don Cheadle gave an Oscar-nominated performance for George in his last feature, and while the cast is made up of Oscar winners and nominees, the performances here don't always reflect that. Joaquin Phoenix, an actor I've never quite cared for, gives a subdued performance as Ethan Learner, a quiet and reserved man who when faced with unspeakable sadness is forced into the most extreme circumstances. Phoenix never quite comes across as menacing, even when he resorts to stalker-like techniques to find out just who was responsible for his son's death. Mark Ruffalo portrays Dwight as a conflicted individual as opposed to an outright monster. It's ripping him apart inside slowly, and as the picture rolls on, you can feel him finally getting ready to confront his demons. It's a testament to Ruffalo's ability as an actor to give such a layered performance when the material isn't always there for him to do so. Oscar winners Jennifer Connely and Mira Sorvino are also under-utilized as supporting players, while Elle Fanning gives a strong performance that stands out in the picture and makes her seem a capable actor in her own right and not just as Dakota's sister.
I wanted to like Reservation Road given the strong talent involved, the bestselling novel it was based on, and the important themes it could have brought to the table. However, instead of being a character study on how families cope with loss and death and the constant lack of justice in the court system, it disregards that early on for the trappings of a traditional thriller, and in the last half hour becomes about the final showdown between the two male leads. It's not that it's a bad motion picture in that it's not boring, hard to sit through, or extremely heavy handed or slanted politically, it's just a film that doesn't live up to its potential. One could do much worse, but alas, one could also do so much better.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.