Reservation Road

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Directed by Terry George. Screenplay by John Burnham Schwartz and Terry George. Released by Focus Features.

Warning: This review contains spoilers, although most if not all of them are alluded to in the trailer.

A family stops at a roadside restaurant on their way home. During the stop, one of the children walks out by the road, where he’s hit by a passing car and killed. The driver of the car continues on, aware of what he’s done. The father of the dead child burns to find his child’s killer, eventually driven to extreme measures after being frustrated by the inability of the police to identify the perpetrator.

Does this sound like something you’d want to watch? Of course, like Nick pointed out the other day, it’s not so much what the movie is about but rather how it goes about it. So let me say, in case you think there’s something of value underneath the subject matter: this is a wretched little movie.

I wrote last week that Things We Lost in the Fire looked “like some kind of weird emotion porn.” As it turns out, that wasn’t really a good way to describe that movie, but it’s a perfect description of Reservation Road. There’s no reason for this movie to exist except to force audiences through two hours of pain and misery with no insight into their predicaments and no humanity anywhere in sight.

And it’s bad filmmaking besides. What would you say if I told you that the grief-stricken father (played by Joaquin Phoenix) unknowingly hires the hit-and-run driver (Mark Ruffalo) as his attorney, to pressure the police into keeping focused on the investigation? You’d probably say that it’s one of the dumbest fucking coincidences in the history of film. But it happens, and it’s just one of the many ways that the film demonstrates its lack of humanity by relentlessly stacking the deck against its characters.

And what of dialogue like this, between Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly, playing his wife (probably lightly paraphrased):

Connelly: You have a daughter who needs you. Please don’t abandon us now.

Phoenix: Is that what you think? That I’m abandoning you?

Connelly (after a long pause): Dinner’s ready.

So you know it’s well written, too.

Honestly, I’m trying very hard to think of something good to say about this movie, but I just can’t. For such a self-importantly weighty film, it’s dramatically and emotionally inert. The actors have no chance, because they’re playing writers’ pawns instead of real people. I had to stifle laughter at key moments, and I could hear other people in the auditorium who were less successful at it than I was. It’s all the more disappointing because director George previously made the deeply felt and compelling Hotel Rwanda, and has a history as a writer going back to In the Name of the Father. How he misfired so badly here can only be guessed at. This is one of the worst movies of the year.

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