As Reservation Road (Focus Features) opens, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), a college professor in a small New England town, is driving his family home from a concert while Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) returns from a Red Sox game with his son Luke (Eddie Alderson). The two men’s lives fatally converge when Dwight accidentally hits Ethan’s son outside a gas station, then keeps driving for reasons that are never quite made clear. We know he’s in a rush to get his own son back to his impatient ex-wife (Mira Sorvino), but when you’ve just killed a 10-year-old boy and fled the scene, “I was running late” somehow doesn’t cut it.
In the weeks that follow, Ethan becomes obsessed with hunting down his son’s killer, while the guilt-ridden but weak-willed Dwight makes increasingly clumsy attempts to cover up his crime. Dwight is a lousy liar, but he manages to evade suspicion until Ethan shows up at his law office one day seeking legal representation for his pursuit of the driver. Pressed by his boss, Dwight can’t stammer out a plausible reason not to take on the case, so he finds himself trapped in a professional relationship with the father of his own victim. How do you tell a grief-crazed man that you’ll stop at nothing to find the bastard who killed his son, when you know that bastard is you?
The problem is, unless these people live in a town half the size of Grover’s Corners, the chance of Dwight becoming Ethan’s lawyer is so slim as to strain credulity. In another coincidence, Dwight’s ex-wife just happens to be the dead boy’s music teacher, who’s still giving piano lessons to his little sister (Elle Fanning). In fact, Dwight and Ethan seem unable to step out for so much as a carton of milk without stumbling upon each other’s school recitals or family funerals. Still, it takes surprisingly—some would say excruciatingly—long before the men finally face off in a showdown that’s part vigilante fantasy, part Esalen therapy group.
Like Hall of Famers in a Little League game, Ruffalo and Phoenix act circles around their material in this overdetermined and frequently sodden melodrama. They’re both introspective actors who can project machismo and vulnerability at the same time, and their few scenes together are spellbinding. But ultimately Ruffalo’s character is too underwritten for us to understand or forgive his string of terrible choices. Jennifer Connelly, as Ethan’s wife, Grace, pulls off the near-impossible trick of playing a bereaved mother without foundering in sentiment or cliché. Her climactic fight with Ethan over whether to get rid of their dead child’s toys feels absolutely real, and agonizing. Especially if you have a child of your own, it’s tough to make it through scenes like this without getting at least a little choked up.
Which is precisely the problem. Reservation Road, directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, who also scripted, is the kind of movie that moves you to tears even as you resent the manipulative mechanics of the story. If a film is going to place a dead child, and a grieving parent’s subsequent revenge, at the center of its story, it had better (like the far stronger In the Bedroom) have all its other ducks in row: a great script, tight characterizations, believable suspense. Otherwise it runs the risk of appealing to the lowest common denominator of audience identification: “Can you even imagine living through something so awful?” Yes. Yes, I can. But you’d better not make me imagine it without a pretty damn good reason.