Men have a hard time with feelings. This appears to be the major revelation in Reservation Road, a clanking melodrama in which men suffer loss, grief, and guilt. Specifically, two fathers, both well-meaning and maybe a little naïve, one unhappily divorced, the other blissfully married. Both are complacent and more or less “typical,” until… their paths cross, their fortunes devolve, and over time, they learn that feelings are not only inevitable, but actually good to share.
Reservation Road‘s saccharine opening scene bodes ill: the camera pans over a rolling suburban Connecticut lawn to a gazebo, the setting for an outdoor recital, one segment performed by 10-year-old cellist Josh (Sean Curley), son of Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), who teaches at a local college. He and his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) watch with happy faces, their perfect little daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) equally appreciative of Josh’s wondrous perfection. The camera follows the family as they depart the concert, all giddy sweetness in the sunlight.
At the same time (quite literally, as indicated by clumsy cross-cutting), the second father, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) takes in a Red Sox game with his baseball-capped 11-year-old, Lucas (Eddie Alderson). Dad’s on the phone with his ex, a music teacher named Ruth (Mira Sorvino), who carps that he’s late bringing Lucas home. After extra innings, a crowd in the parking lot, and major traffic exiting the park, it’s nighttime, and Ruth is still complaining by phone. Rushing and irritated, Dwight isn’t paying attention to his driving and oh dear, he has an accident. Not just any accident, but the kind of accident that will drive Dwight to confront his depression, his stalled career (he’s a lawyer at a small firm), his vague and mutually needy relationship with Lucas: he slams his SUV into a child who happens to be standing outside his family’s car at a gas station, in the dark. And that child happens to be Josh.
The accident is horrific — all slamming cuts and careening camerawork — but, as Lucas is asleep until the loud and banging point of impact and so, misses the details, Dwight lies about what happened and drives on. As his taillights briefly slow and then disappear into the dark, the camera takes Ethan’s point of view. Stunned and horrified, he watches the culprit escape, for a second, then turns back to his crumpled, lifeless boy and instructs his wife to keep Emma from seeing what he sees. But of course, no one can quite see what he sees. In Ethan’s mind, his pain is unique: neither Emma nor Grace can understand a father’s loss of his son.
What follows is a two-part study of how each father manages his ordeal, repressing or reframing his feelings. In this study, directed by Terry George, the girls (Grace, Ruth, Emma) are turned into drearily conventional glosses on the men’s ordeals. For a few minutes of screen time, Grace’s pain is overwhelming — she cries, blames herself, stays in bed, and cries some more — while Ethan evinces a stoic sort of strength, encouraging her to leave the house and handling the police report. But then he starts to immerse himself in his own pain, leaving Grace and Emma to Grace’s mother, who hovers in doorways and distracts Emma with coloring books.
Ethan’s tediously charted withdrawal from his family is hastened by his discovery of chat-rooms for anguished and vengeful parents of dead kids; when Grace wonders aloud at his late-night tap-tapping, he turns away from her to the screen, where an instant message assures him that no one understands what they’re going through. At work, in a classroom, Ethan briefly faces the possibility that fear, death, and anger are not his own province, when a couple of students discuss the difference between living in privilege and safety in Connecticut, and living in daily terror in the Middle East or Africa. Ouch! The students look at Ethan and apologize, suddenly sensitive to his recent tragedy.
Though this scene does, on one level, expand the context of Ethan’s loss (well-to-do Americans do feel genuine, horrific woe, sometimes), its primary function is to galvanize his desire for retribution (his students don’t appreciate his situation). While Grace tends to Emma, he becomes increasingly unhinged, spending hours online, ignoring Emma, obsessing about a dark and dented SUV he spots in a Saudi diplomat’s driveway. At the same time (again), Dwight is increasingly demoralized in his own way. Ruth tries to provide a stable home for Lucas (with her new husband), Dwight frets and sweats, hides his dark and dented SUV in the garage and rents a car to get to work (for a lawyer, he’s not exactly clever about eluding the law).
All this sad and inept dad business would be more than enough for most any movie. But Reservation Road, based on John Burnham Schwartz’s 1998 novel, piles on ludicrous intersections by which the men might meet, mistake and try too hard to manipulate one another. When Ethan needs a lawyer, guess whom he hires? And when Emma finds solace in her music, guess who offers to give her extra lessons? Such contrivances provide for plenty of tense close-ups wherein the men show their torment, sometimes augmented by overwrought dialogue, as in, “It’s the son of a bitch who stole our son’s life, that’s who to blame!” or again, “What kind of person could do that?” But they also stretch credulity, and the film suffers for the plotty manipulations.
As Grace and Ruth find ways to “cope” — both focus their energies on helping Emma perform in a recital she declares will “honor” her brother — the men act out, repeatedly, short-sightedly, even violently. Unsurprisingly, their hard time with feelings becomes everyone else’s.