People are always struck later by how quickly it all happened. One second they were walking down the street without a care in the world. The next second they were screaming for someone to call 911. And the seconds and minutes and hours and years after that are nothing like what they'd expected them to be. Reservation Road is about one of those pivotal moments, a hit-and-run accident that takes the life of a 10-year-old boy. When Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), and their two children make a pit stop on the way home from the son's orchestral recital, an SUV rips a hole in their family that will never be entirely sewn back together. But Reservation Road isn't just about when bad things happen to good people. It's about when bad things tip the Earth off its axis.
Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) was the driver of the SUV. He and his son were returning from a Red Sox game, and Dwight was running late, as usual. His ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) would be giving him hell again, and all he could think about, when he hit the kid, was his custody rights. So Dwight kept going, told his son, who was asleep over on the passenger side, that they'd hit a log. Hit-and-run accidents are strangely fascinating, given that the perpetrator had no idea he was about to commit a crime. His life changes in a flash, too. And Reservation Road draws out the parallels between Dwight and Ethan, turning them into doppelgangers. Both love their sons. One is overcome with grief, the other's racked with guilt. And director Terry George often cuts from one of them leaving a room to the other entering a different room.
The movie does a nice job of portraying the immediate aftermath of the accident, when life is held in suspended animation while decisions nevertheless have to be made. Do you stay with the body, or do you return home? What do you do when you get there? Do you try to sleep? Get a glass of water? Take a shower? And what about the next day? Who'll call the funeral home? Only gradually does Reservation Road settle into what we might call Stage Two: the criminal investigation. Evidence is collected, statements are taken, records are checked. Meanwhile, it's dawning on Dwight what a despicable person he is. Perhaps only Dostoyevsky could do full justice to what goes on in the mind of a man who runs down a child with his car and then, instead of turning himself in, hides the car in his garage - Dostoyevsky or Hitchcock.
Reservation Road takes a Hitchcockian turn when Ethan, fed up with the way the police are handling the case, hires none other than Dwight, a lawyer, to keep the pressure on them. They both live in suburban Connecticut, so maybe it's not a total coincidence. But having Dwight's ex-wife be the music teacher of Ethan's kids may be grounds for revoking the movie's dramatic license. What's weird is that the movie doesn't really pursue the thriller angle - a guy hired to help bring himself to justice. It's more interested in the emotions that swirl around a family tragedy, the way it burns everybody it touches. When the police investigation starts to wind down, Ethan starts to wind up, converting his grief into anger. He simply can't move on with his life knowing that the murderer of his child is out there somewhere.
As Ethan, Phoenix has the difficult task of playing emotions that keep spilling over onto themselves. And you sometimes wish that both of them - actor and character - would rein it in a bit, but who's going to ask a grieving father to rein it in? Ruffalo has the even more difficult task of playing a role that's underwritten. Director George and his co-scriptwriter, John Burnham Schwartz (who wrote the novel the movie's based on), haven't succeeded in penetrating Dwight's guilty conscience, and that leaves Ruffalo little to play. But Connelly, in the role of grieving mother, hits some beautiful high notes. Grace can't understand why Ethan is so determined to assign blame when it won't do anything to bring their son back. What she doesn't seem to realize, though, is that the fault lines are already there. The trick is to avoid an earthquake.