After about 100 pages, I gave up on John Burnham Schwartz’s 1998 novel Reservation Road, a typically overwritten and contrived slice of mass-market literary pablum that hopscotches between the points of view of three people — the grieving parents of a 10-year-old boy killed by a hit-and-run driver on the titular stretch of Connecticut blacktop, and the perpetrator. I wanted to give up on director Terry George’s new film version even sooner, pretty much right from its picture-postcard opening images of sailboats on late-summer water, Red Sox fans cheering the team through the 2004 post-season, and smiling suburban families enjoying a children’s concert in an inviting park. These people — call them “ordinary” if you will — are much too happy for something awful not to befall them before the first reel is through, and George, who previously directed the equally crude and obvious Hotel Rwanda, is far too clumsy a filmmaker to disguise his true intentions. (Remember Rwanda’s early scene of a box of machetes “accidentally” spilling out onto a warehouse floor?)
Yes, Reservation Road is one of those movies where the characters suffer early and often, starting with the moment that lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) plows his SUV into the body of Josh Lerner (Sean Curley) outside a roadside gas station while the boy’s parents, college professor Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), look on in helpless horror. Dwight, who’s carrying a roof rack’s worth of emotional baggage — a contentious ex (Mira Sorvino), an 11-year-old son (Eddie Alderson) caught in the parental crossfire — stops for a second, then thinks better (or worse) of it and speeds off into the darkness. By the time, a few scenes later, that Ethan unknowingly hires Dwight to be his advocate in the ongoing search for his son’s killer, you may rightly start to wonder if perhaps John Burnham Schwartz (who shares screenplay credit with George) is not just a flowery nom de plume for one Paul Haggis.
Will Dwight’s guilty conscience speak up before Ethan figures things out and goes all Jodie Foster on him? While we await the answer with something less than breathless anticipation, the bathos piles up like autumn leaves. Scenes invariably begin or end with someone crying, blaming himself/herself for events beyond his/her control (Ethan for his son’s death, Grace for Ethan’s limp dick in the sack), and other assorted hysterics that one hoped had gone out of fashion along with eating-disorder-of-the-week TV movies and “very special episodes” of popular sitcoms. Still to come: the obligatory Googling of victim support groups; the gruff indifference of the police; the mildewed bromides about how violence begets violence; and, in one particularly rancid attempt at post-9/11 “relevance,” a sequence in which Ethan takes to stalking the Saudi diplomat he is convinced was behind the wheel of that phantom SUV.
The actors — especially Ruffalo, who has a special aptitude for playing wounded, inarticulate American males — soldier through as best they can. What, though, is an actress as resourceful as Connelly meant to make of a part that asks little of her but to bite her lip bravely before finally exploding in an aria of “My son is dead! I’m trying to figure out how to live!” Reservation Road itself may twist and turn into the New England night, but emotionally and dramatically the movie that bears its name is a dead end. At least, for what it’s worth, the Sox still win the Series.
RESERVATION ROAD | Directed by TERRY GEORGE | Written by JOHN BURNHAM SCHWARTZ and GEORGE, based on the novel by SCHWARTZ | Produced by NICK WECHSLER and A. KITMAN HO | Released by Focus Features | ArcLight and AMC Century City