Reservation Road

A dramatic situation that should be wrenching is mostly tedious in "Reservation Road."

Ethan Learner - Joaquin Phoenix Dwight Arno - Mark Ruffalo Grace Learner - Jennifer Connelly Ruth Wheldon - Mira Sorvino Emma Learner - Elle Fanning Lucas Arno - Eddie Alderson Josh Learner - Sean Curley Sergeant Burke - Antoni Corone Steve - John Slattery Minister - John Rothman Norris Wheldon - Gary Kohn

A dramatic situation that should be wrenching is mostly tedious in “Reservation Road.” Tale of two New England fathers, one of whom kills the other’s son in a hit-and-run auto accident and takes the entire picture to fess up to it, deals with painful, elemental emotions, to be sure. But the film has no special insight into the psyches of either man, or into the broader issues of how to process profound loss or admit culpability for a heinous act. As pic offers scant emotional rewards or catharsis, it’s hard to imagine auds flocking to this downbeat drama in any significant numbers.

Novel by John Burnham Schwartz, who is credited with the adaptation along with director Terry George, was well received in 1998, and has been updated mainly to place the action simultaneously with the Boston Red Sox’s successful World Series drive in 2004 — the only upbeat aspect of the story.

The central tragedy, presented in the opening minutes, thereafter hangs over the characters like a black shroud. On the way home from an outdoor student concert late one summer evening, 10-year-old Josh Learner, son of Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and brother of Emma (Elle Fanning), is accidently hit near a gas station along a rural Connecticut road. Behind the wheel of the Ford Explorer is Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), who’s racing back from Fenway Park to drop son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) at the home of his impatient ex, Ruth (Mira Sorvino).

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Realizing he’s hit something in the dark, Dwight instinctively hesitates, then continues on, as he’s already nervous about being late. Back at the station, the Learners’ devastation is awful, yet predictable in its appalling emotion; after all, how many different ways are there to dramatize such a scene?

Similarly familiar are the scenes of family grieving, the funeral, anger, guilt, sleeplessness, recriminations and growing husband-wife estrangement as they try to cope in different ways, Grace by working her way through it and Ethan by becoming obsessed with achieving justice by any means necessary.

In the story’s great coincidence, when Ethan goes to hire a local attorney to help him with his case, the man he is assigned is — Dwight himself. The way he’s presented here, Dwight is such a screw-up — as a husband, father and member of society — that it’s hard to believe he made it through law school and can hold down such a job. He just does manage to hold it together while speaking professionally with the distraught Ethan.

But when it becomes clear that Dwight doesn’t intend to just get it over with and do the right thing — he does try to turn himself in once, but the police are too busy to listen to him — the whole film becomes a waiting game for the inevitable confrontation between the two men once the cards are all on the table. Unfortunately, it’s far longer in coming than it should be, with little edification offered in the interim.

The talented thesps all work up a sweat portraying their characters’ pent-up tension and anger, resulting in performances that are intense, overwrought and on the nose, with no surprises. Story is so single-mindedly about timidity (Dwight) and anger (Ethan) and nothing else that it quickly grows tiresome.

One specific shortcoming is the way it depicts Red Sox mania; as die-hard Boston fans, Dwight and his son should be brimming with anxiety and excitement as the playoffs and series progress — they follow them on television — but the games don’t seem to quicken their pulses even a bit.

Pic does benefit from actual Connecticut locations.

Reservation Road

Production: A Focus Features (in U.S.) release, presented with Random House Films, of a Nick Wechsler/Miracle Pictures production, in association with Volume One Entertainment. Produced by Wechsler, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers, Dean M. Leavitt, Gina Resnick. Directed by Terry George. Screenplay, John Burnham Schwartz, George, based on the novel by Schwartz.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor), John Lindley; editor, Naomi Geraghty; music, Mark Isham; music supervisors, Budd Carr, Nora Felder; production designer, Ford Wheeler; art director, Kim Jennings; set decorator, Chryss Hionis; costume designer, Catherine George; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Gary Alper; supervising sound editor, Paul Urmson; re-recording mixer, Tom Fleischman; assistant director, Glen Trotiner; second unit director, A. Kitman Ho; second unit camera, Craig DiBona; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 12, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

Cast: Ethan Learner - Joaquin Phoenix Dwight Arno - Mark Ruffalo Grace Learner - Jennifer Connelly Ruth Wheldon - Mira Sorvino Emma Learner - Elle Fanning Lucas Arno - Eddie Alderson Josh Learner - Sean Curley Sergeant Burke - Antoni Corone Steve - John Slattery Minister - John Rothman Norris Wheldon - Gary Kohn

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