Sometimes, even the best of actors can’t save a movie that drowns in its own self-importance. Despite the best efforts of an all-star cast, Reservation Road is a complete disappointment to those expecting more than a Lifetime movie. Director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) may have just proved himself a one hit wonder, and should perhaps, stick to made-for-TV movies.
Reservation Road spends no time pretending like it will be a worthwhile movie. It seems George’s thought process must have gone something like, ‘Character development? No time for that!’ The beginning of the film introduces us to some of the flattest characters in recent film memory. We’re given the image of a picture perfect family: Grace, and Ethan (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly), and two talented and charming children Josh and Emma (played by Sean Curley and Elle Fanning). We’re also introduced to the broken family: short-tempered, divorced, lawyer Dad named Dwight (when will we get tired of lawyers being a bad omen?) played by Mark Ruffalo, and his son, Lucas. Dwight has just received permission from the court to have unsupervised visits with Lucas (it doesn’t explain why that right was revoked in the first place). He takes his son to a Red Sox game, and on the way back home, he happens to hit the son of Grace and Ethan, who left the car at a gas station to release the jar of fireflies he caught for his sister after his cello concert on the beach. In a moment of panic, Dwight leaves the scene, leaving the previously happy family broken due to the loss of a key player. From this point on, Ethan can think of nothing but justice, even to the point of abandoning his family emotionally when they need his help the most.
In an attempt to cover the shallowly developed characters, George decided to exploit the sensation of losing a child, which is despicable. The plot, and writing is so contrived, you’ll cringe when watching Road. There was one scene where one character says to the other, without laughing, or giving off the impression of irony, “We had nicknames for each other: ‘Nitro’ and ‘Glycerin.’ You could say we had an explosive relationship.” To mirror the poor choices of Dwight, his son takes part in a conveniently similar situation at school, to which Dwight preaches that he must take responsibility for his actions, and accept whatever punishment comes to him.
While the actors excel, they can’t do much with their parts. Jennifer Connelly is the standout at the beginning of the film, but then resigns to the part that was written for her, and spends the rest of the film doing nothing but tearing up at the mere mention of children. Similarly, Phoenix and Ruffalo act their hearts out, but can do little to change the horrendous direction the plot takes.