Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reservation Road (Focus Features, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Reservation Road, which I’d recorded last weekend off Lifetime and which, like The Good Girl — the film that immediately preceded it on their schedule — was originally a theatrical release rather than one of Lifetime’s made-for-TV specials. Unfortunately, Reservation Road was nowhere near as good as The Good Girl, not because the basic concept didn’t have potential but because it was badly bobbled in the execution. The title “Reservation Road” is the name of a back road in Connecticut, where all the principals live, and the film opens at a nighttime gas station where the two families at the heart of the story come together in a violent and tragic fashion.

Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix, top-billed) and his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) are driving their two children, daughter Emma (Elle Fanning, younger sister of go-to child star Dakota Fanning) and son Josh (Sean Curley), home after a long weekend when Emma protests that she needs to use a restroom, so Ethan pulls into the gas station, goes in to buy windshield-wiper fluid, and Josh gets out of the car to set free some fireflies he’d caught earlier. Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is a divorced dad who’s having his final night of custody for a while and has used it to take his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) to a Boston Red Sox game — the film is set in 2004, when the Red Sox were on their way to breaking the Bambino’s curse and winning their first World Series since 1918 — only the game has gone into extra innings and Dwight’s ex, Ruth Wheldon (Mira Sorvino), is frantically calling him on his cell phone demanding her boy back immediately.

Speeding down the ill-lit back road, Dwight’s SUV hits something he either thinks or rationalizes is just a log; Dwight briefly slows down and thinks of turning back, but he’s so frantic to get home that he just drives on. The object he hit is Josh Learner, who dies on the spot and, not surprisingly, sets his family in general and his father in particular into rage at the injustice of their son being killed by a hit-and-run driver. Had the filmmakers — co-writers John Burnham Schwartz and Terry George (George also directed and the two based their script on Schwartz’s previous novel) — kept their story focused on the effect the accident has both on the victim’s family and on the perpetrator, they could have had a great movie: the action is well staged, the acting is convincing and the horror of the aftermath is beautifully staged. Ethan ends up consumed by grief, finding Web sites and online chat rooms for family members of people killed by hit-and-run drivers, and the comments he gets only underscore his suspicions that this sort of crime is a low priority for the police and that if he wants justice done he’s going to have to ignore the police and courts and do it himself. He’s so consumed by grief, in fact, that he’s unable to have sex with his wife; his daughter is getting jealous at having the impossible challenge of having to compete with her dead brother for dad’s attention; and in one of the most chilling scenes in the film he tears into his wife when she’s about to throw away their late son’s belongings and she accuses him of wanting to cling to them for morbid reasons that are only getting in the way of their achieving — horrible word — “closure.”

Unfortunately, George and Schwartz can’t stop there: they have to power their story on two of the most ridiculous coincidences ever offered by filmmakers (or fiction writers, for that matter) supposedly telling a serious dramatic story. Advised to hire his own lawyer to push the police to investigate harder and also to consider a wrongful-death suit if the killer of his son is caught and gets a slap-on-the-wrist sentence or is freed altogether, Ethan shows up at the law firm he’s hired, and guess who’s been assigned to the case? None other than the perpetrator himself, Dwight Arno. It gets even sillier when midway through the film George and Schwartz decide to make Emma Learner a child prodigy on the piano — thereby giving her, at least, something (a school recital) to prepare for rather than keep stewing in grief the way her dad is doing. And guess who the piano teacher is that Grace hires to coach her daughter for the recital? That’s right: Ruth Wheldon, ex-wife of the person who killed their son. Dwight tries to conceal his crime by putting his SUV in storage and renting a replacement car, but eventually Ethan catches on by seeing a photo of Dwight and his son Lucas in front of the vehicle — and notices it has a grille guard (one of those protuberances that make such a car look even more aggressive than it does au naturel — and which might have been the reason the accident killed Josh on impact instead of just injuring him), which leads him to put two and two together and, rather than do the sensible thing and report his suspicions to the police, go after Dwight with a gun to set up a final mano-a-mano confrontation between them.

It’s hard to criticize Reservation Road because much of it is quite beautiful and dramatically insightful — but for every scene that works as the vivid, moving drama this script had every right and opportunity to be, there’s another that’s so risible in its clichéd plotting and stupid reliance on coincidence that it’s hard to keep from laughing.