To preface my review for Reservation Road, I think it’s appropriate to point out that not many movies have the intensity to push me to the verge of tears. It takes special kinds of films, like The Green Mile, to do this to me. Now I can say that Reservation Road can be added to this small list due to its excellent character development and intensely realistic themes.
It is a day like any other in a small Connecticut town. Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is driving his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson) back to his mother’s (Mira Sorvino) house after a memorable afternoon at a Red Sox game. Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly) Lerner are driving their kids, Josh (Sean Curley) and Emma (Elle Fanning), home after a recital that Josh was in. While making a pit stop, two lives collide as Dwight accidentally hits Josh with his SUV, killing him. Instead of stopping, Dwight drives away out of fear. Now comes the turmoil of both families; one struggling with overwhelming guilt and the other obsessing over the truth.
It would have been easy enough for this film to turn into a run of the mill melodrama, but I feel that it succeeds in crossing that line and becoming something much more powerful. This is done by the remarkable performances of the lead characters. Joaquin Phoenix lights up the screen with his fits of anger and sadness, showing that he has a very wide range of emotions as an actor. Jennifer Connelly also travels across a large character arc from despondent and grieving to a woman just trying to get on with life.
The most interesting character for me though is Mark Ruffalo’s character, Dwight Arno. Recently, Ruffalo has caught my attention as being a fantastic and deep actor. His character in Reservation Road is very difficult because even though he has done a terrible thing, he is not a bad person. In fact, he is a very good hearted person who just so happens to have made a terrible mistake. There were times where I was hoping Arno would come out unscathed, but then it would dawn on me again that what he did is near unforgivable.
The use of children in this movie also hits like a sucker punch to the throat. Seeing how kids react to a tragedy like this is difficult to watch. Elle Fanning gives an impressive performance as the little sister whose brother has been killed. Eddie Alderson also gives a fine performance, although Elle’s character gets to explore more emotion.
There aren’t any tricks in Reservation Road, and for good reason. The camera work and cinematography are just fine, but nothing special. If their were loads of stylized camera movement and dramatic lighting, than the story would feel less intense I feel. Terry George, who also directed the powerhouse Hotel Rwanda, puts story and character development above all else.
There are a few plot points that feel a little stretched. By that, I mean they seem rather unlikely. For drama’s sake, they work pretty well in creating extra depressingly awkward tension and suspense. If the viewer can suspend some disbelief, than these points won’t be a problem. It is true, however, that the other realistic points are affected by the unrealistic.
Reservation Road is one hell of a film. Terry George succeeds, almost 100%, in creating an intense, believable narrative full of pure human emotion and the consequences of our actions. After watching this movie, I tried to put myself in the places of both Ruffalo’s and Phoenix’s characters. This gets you to thinking about your own morality and ability to handle loss. Sure, the film may feel melodramatic at times and there may be some unlikely scenarios, but don’t let this stop you from seeing Reservation Road.