Reservation Road

Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, ...
Photo: Macall Polay

Bad things happen and terrible choices are made in the very sad, very nerve-racking, very good melodrama Reservation Road. And there’s no way to talk about the value of enduring the pain without describing something, however minimal, of what happens. This isn’t a quandary for those already familiar with the fine, tight 1998 novel by John Burnham Schwartz, with its bitter epigraph from the Book of Job and its shuffling narrators. But what about for those who have never read it? What if I say that there’s a hit-and-run car accident, a dead son, and a grieving father, plus a driver who’s a father with a son of his own? What if I add that there’s a remarkable climax — is that enough?

It’ll have to be. The net of dramatic coincidences, of bold choices acted upon or not, based on dumb good or bad luck, tugs tightest on those with little preparation. Anyhow, even readers in the know will be surprised by tweaks made by the novelist and director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), who co-wrote the screenplay. Expanded and amped up to fill a screen, this Reservation Road invites an audience comfortable with the sophisticated anxieties of Todd Field’s Little Children and, especially, In the Bedroom to consider what it takes to go on living in the face of unbearable tragedy. To keep a family from blowing apart in the aftermath. To be a man. And to do so in manicured Connecticut, the proud address of so many potentially lethal SUVs.

To be sure, Joaquin Phoenix (as the grieving dad, Ethan, a college professor) and Mark Ruffalo (as the guilty dad, Dwight, a lawyer) make male pain rewarding as a spectator sport; they’re actors who specialize in conveying inarticulate conflict and buried anger, and the wonder is that the two haven’t been paired before, so perfectly does each actor’s dark, dense presence meet — and challenge — the other man’s interior restlessness and moist, hurting eyes. Jennifer Connelly plays a murmuring, supportive role as Ethan’s equally grieving but less emotionally jammed up wife (they’re also parents of a little girl played by Elle Fanning — like her older sister, Dakota, a champion screamer), and Mira Sorvino is subtle as Dwight’s ex-wife, mother of Dwight’s son, Lucas (newcomer Eddie Alderson). But this is a man’s tale of justice pursued. And the Belfast-born George, who, in screenplays including The Boxer and In the Name of the Father, specializes in dark-eyed guys ready to rumble, knows what the playing field should look like.

It ain’t pretty, even with Connecticut plates. Yet there’s a kind of tough beauty to this deft, satisfying thriller. A-

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