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October 22, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | October 22, 2007 |

I haven’t read Reservation Road, the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, but there’s got to be more to it than what’s on display in the movie it inspired, which barely has enough plot to wheeze to the end of its 102 minutes. The only thing missing from the movie’s trailer is its briefly staged resolution. Otherwise, those three minutes of preview provide all the essentials. The rest is just tortured attempts at suspense and capable actors limited by their characters’ one-dimensional experiences.

The story revolves around Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), two fathers with opposite personalities who are brought into each other’s orbit by a tragic accident. In the movie’s opening moments, Dwight, distractedly driving his SUV home after attending a Red Sox game with his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson), strikes and kills Ethan’s 10-year-old boy, who’s standing by a curve in the road while his family is stopped at a gas station. After a very brief hesitation, Dwight flees the scene (Lucas is bounced into the dashboard by the accident and doesn’t comprehend what happened).

After Dwight makes a visit to his ex-wife, Ruth (Mira Sorvino), to drop off Lucas, he heads home for the first of many long, dark nights of the soul, during which he considers calling the police, only to pick up and replace the phone the way a nervous, lovestruck teenager might. For the rest of the movie, we’re stuck while Dwight ponders a decision, with not much to entertain us while we wait. The movie’s most dramatic element is whatever’s going on inside Dwight’s head, but the interior of the human head is a notoriously uncinematic place (for reasons of lighting, if nothing else), so the filmmakers desperately drum up a few tepid surprises along the way.

After Ethan grows increasingly frustrated with the official investigation’s lack of leads, he visits Dwight’s law firm to ask for help. The two men being thrown together like this is contrivance enough, but it’s not the only way in which their tight-knit small Connecticut town is abused as a prop; we’re also shown that Ruth is the piano teacher of Ethan’s surviving daughter.

All of this is enough to try the viewer’s patience, but unfortunately not enough to make the story’s arc any less predictable — from early on, it’s clear we’re attending a race between Dwight’s decision to turn himself in and Ethan’s decision to complete his transformation from quiet academic to raging vigilante. Ethan fuels his anger by researching legal loopholes online and finding out how lenient the punishment might be even if the perpetrator is caught. Meanwhile, his marriage to Grace (Jennifer Connelly) is deteriorating as her efforts to heal are met by his late-night sessions in chat rooms for bereaved parents, where he scratches his wound. For the past several years, the lovely, talented Connelly has been sniffing out one-note tragic roles the way Steve Carell attaches himself to play sullen man-children. She’s threatening to turn her career into one long crying jag. It’s not that she isn’t good at the suffering thing, but it’s starting to feel like the same character is just wandering on and off various Hollywood sets. Someone get this woman a romantic comedy, stat.

Ruffalo and Phoenix are both terrific actors with screen presence to burn, but their gifts are mostly wasted on this glum march to the closing credits. I suppose you could say their gifts save the material from an even worse fate, but it would be harder to argue that the material deserves the pardon.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Running on Empty

Reservation Road / John Williams

Film | October 22, 2007 |

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