You wonder what goes through the minds of those involved in hit and run accidents. In that split second after impact, you are presented a choice, and your life will change, one way or the other. One probably has to consider whether to stop and render assistance, and in doing so owning up to the accident, but having a chance to save a life if the circumstances allow for it. Or to hope that nobody saw you did what you did, and bolt. Negligent drivers, either through drink driving, or being distracted while on the road, probably won't elicit much sympathy, especially so from the family of the victim, and in Reservation Road, powerful drama is weaved amongst the characters on both sides of the hit and run equation.
Reservation Road refers to the scene of the crime, where the Learners - dad Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), mom Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) lose their son/brother in an accident, caused by a man in a baseball cap, driving an SUV. On this angle, we follow through the pain of the family who suffer a terrible loss. The dad Ethan slowly degenerates into an obsessive wreck, trying in vain to pursue the perpetrator who's out there, through his own dogged investigations when he realizes that the cops can only do what they can given extremely limited leads which yielded no progress. The mom Grace, while at first finding it hard to accept the truth - and in the initial days, the simplest of reasons to pin the guilt in, will resonate deeply - but we see how she draws strength in the hope of keeping the family spirits up. And the daughter finds ways to cope with the loss through channeling her energies into performance.
On the other angle, Mark Ruffalo plays Dwight the lawyer, who's estranged from his wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) and has visiting rights to their son. When the accident happens, in that split second he made the inevitable decision for self preservation, and while he may have momentarily escape from justice and the law, negative karma dictates that he will live his life being tormented by guilt from that point on, all this while trying to provide reason that he based his decision on being able to be free from jail, to continue seeing his son. Confession and owning up will see himself in the slammer, and probably losing everything. I thought this part of the story was the more interesting one. On one hand we judge that he's a coward, of not being a man in owning up to the wrong that he did. On the other, we also realize his pain and his fear - it takes a lot to own up, especially when it involves lives being taken away, and from people we remotely know, no thanks to six degrees of separation.
Based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), some might wonder if the coming together of the key characters are a tad convenient. We have father to father in a lawyer-client position, and one mother being the teacher of the other's child. Putting them together will lead to the inevitable, but it is this unravelling of the truth, that keeps us engaged to a gripping ending. Scenes that will make you seethe with rage, and probably whisper a silent curse, will be those where opportunities for confession are presented, but each time spurned. As the saying goes, a lie begets a larger lie, and it will snowball before you realize that the lie becomes to difficult to cover up.
Kudos go all round to the entire cast, save for Sorvino's role which is more cameo than supporting, mainly also because the tanglement of the complicated situation doesn't affect her character directly. Ruffalo put on a commendable performance as the man wrecked by guilt, and he fleshed his character with incredible nuances we usually associate when we are fearful, and guilty. You can feel pain through Joaquin's performance of the dad looking for justice, but finds himself being unsatisfied by the system of the law, and learns that sometimes the law and justice conflict each other, and offer the layman little or no protection, unlike those such as diplomats who have powers at their disposal. Jennifer Connelly of late plays nothing but pained wives/mothers/girlfriends (A Beautiful Mind, Hulk, Dark Water, Little Children), so there's nothing really new in her role her. But I would like to single out little Elle Fanning. While her role here is fairly simple, I thought she had exhibited much more screen presence and likeability than her more illustrious sister Dakota, who has disappeared after her last outing in Charlotte's Web. Hopefully we get to see more of Elle taking on challenging kid/teen roles in time to come.
Reservation Road is recommended for being a powerful drama with excellent an excellent cast. Usually movies like these will have the mothers bawling and the picture being a weepie drama, but here, the movie shifts its focus to the love of fathers toward their sons, and that makes it well worth a watch.