Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino
Director: Terry George
Runtime: 102 min.
Director: Terry George
Runtime: 102 min.
“What kind of a person hits and runs away from an accident?” is at the center of this latest drama examining the after effects of a mishap. It is a great moral quandary, this question, and there’re many ways to explore it. Reservation Road though, picks the easiest, the most conventional, the most unremarkable path it possibly can and tries its best to provide a neat, and a rather happy resolution. Something the subject doesn’t deserve in the least. Reservation Road is so correct, and I mean every which way, that its characters seem to walk only on zebra crossings, whenever the chance offers itself.
By the conventional path, what I mean is that there are the usual doses of the family not coming to terms with the tragedy, the growing distance between the father and the mother, and one of the parents life being driven by it i.e. on the road to finding the killer and getting justice. And all of them find themselves resolved as the final frame makes its appearance. Up until then, what triggers the events at hand is the most commonplace reason for night-time mishaps – a combination of the mobile phone and the full-beam of the oncoming vehicle. It is incomprehensible to me why, when there’s traffic from both sides and there’s enough vehicles to shine the divine light on the potholes in front, would one need full-beam. I face the problem every night, while I drive back to home, and it is a sense that doesn’t need to be taught; it is rather something we as Homo sapiens are assumed to understand. Anyways, Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) with his son on the passengers seat back from a Red Sox game, swerves from the path and rams his SUV into Ethan Learner’s (Phoenix) son Sean. Panicking, he flees, even before the Learners realize what has hit them. The moral drama begins.
Ethan is a college professor, and he seems, initially, to be in the possession of the wisdom cinema usually offers them. His wife, Grace (Connelly) is the one who is hit the hardest, initially. But as weeks pass by, and the investigation heads nowhere, the equation changes. The mother fights her way back into life, but the father seems to be drowning deeper into the territory of vendetta, moving ever farther from his family. If you wonder why I use the word drown, that is kind of tone the film assumes, and that is where I’m cross with it. It quite easily assumes judgmental positions; it always sits on a hill-top playing God to these characters. Yes, on an armchair, it is easy to assume that the revenge seeking parent is wrong, for he is forfeiting his life, and his family. The film, through Grace’s voice, does as much as get the house rid of Sean’s possessions. And she, quite easily, assumes a conflicting position, not trying to understand him, but always asking of him to do the right thing. I don’t think it is all that easy, and the script, nor the film ever explore that.
George seems to be an astute observer of moments, and how they pan out on an individual. When Dwight walks into his office, Ethan sitting there for him, it is a great sequence the way it focuses, internalizes Dwight’s conscience. The sequence has a great claustrophobic effect. And there’re quite a lot of such fine moments. There’re some easy coincidence along the way too. By easy, I mean easy for Dwight’s conscience to make its presence felt. Dwight’s former wife Ruth Wheldon (Sorvino) is Sean’s music teacher. And Ethan, when he requires legal services to advance the investigation of his son, walks into Dwight’s office. As easy as you like. I don’t mind that too much, while it is done with honesty, and the film does whatever it tries, with a great deal of honesty. It even plays the moral game with honesty, and it shies away from the harder game with honesty. I quite liked that, and having been witness to George’s previous directorial venture, the universally acclaimed Hotel Rwanda (2004), it was quite what I would have expected of him. The same approach served him there too, the politically morally correct, easy way out, always playing the pleasing God. I didn’t think much of that film that time around, and when I viewed it a second time around a few weeks back, I think my initial judgment was pretty much bang on. The subject matter is distinguishable, the handling not exactly there.
The performances take the film where it is. Connelly has made a career out of anguish; she can make even the most thinly written character to shine. She does that here, and elevates a rather thankless character, undeserving of her talent. I’m not sure if these characters seek her or is it the other way round. The focus is on Phoenix and Ruffalo, the two characters in counterpoint to each other. The predator and the prey. Ruffalo portrays finely the guilt that accompanies the character, a person who is aware of his cowardice and is rather helpless to do anything about it. Phoenix is the toughest character; and is quite convincing, especially in the later stages. None of them are helped by some Oscar-lust driven sequences, that we unfortunately feel like, owe their existence to their histrionic-ability-reading abilities.
But what about the central question? There could be a lot of views, a lot of debates and a lot of judgments passed. You know where the answer lay – within yourself. I would love to have seen what Ethan would have experienced if he ever ended up, mistakenly, being the cause of a fatal accident. Maybe that is what he sees in the end, and that is why he leaves. There’s nothing more horrifying than the simple truth – when life pushes, one is capable of a lot more evil than one judges against. It takes great courage to stand up, and raise one’s hand, then. The film reaches that very same destination, traveling a rather unimaginative road, never making a stop decent enough to explore those horrors.