Terry George takes a step back, from his previous, brilliant effort –the film "Hotel Rwanda"- to show us something perhaps more intimate, or less universal (war is, after all, an universal issue): the life of a family that, all of a sudden, gets ruined with the death of their son Jason. Us, the viewers, instantly know who committed the murder: Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer. But Jason's father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn't, and his eagerness to find out makes him angry and drives him away from his beautiful wife Grace (Jennifer Conelly) and his daughter Emma (Elle Fanning). After all, there's one thing that Ethan and us share in knowledge: the guy knew he hit something, and hesitated for a moment... But then he drove away.
It's a wise choice that the viewer knows who the murderer is, but we can't give the director credit for it, because it's something that comes originally from the novel in which the film is based (Terry George co-wrote the script with the novel's author). However, we can give George credit for some of the few wise choices in "Reservation Road", like giving Mark Ruffalo the part of Dwight Arno. Ruffalo's always been great at carrying burdens; as an unfaithful husband ("We don't live here anymore"), a passionate lover ("My life without me") or a grieving husband ("Just like heaven"). The difference is that this time the burden is one of the main focuses of the film, and the great actor's effort is bigger.
But it makes me sad to say that he doesn't work as hard as the man who carries the film on his shoulders and makes it a memorable experience: Joaquin Phoenix. His kind, passionate and moving performance slowly takes us through a film that without his presence would be difficult to watch. And this is because it's not an easy movie to shoot. The small town feeling it expresses is not faithfully treated: the camera only goes to places the story requires, leaving aside any other indication of the actual location where the events are occurring; and in those places, the camera approaches particular things to underline what's about to happen, things like a seat-belt or a cap. It's a way of filming that's not good for the story or the characters; it makes everything more predictable and empty.
Altogether and with time, the movie loses credibility. A family is being destroyed but we only see it inside their house or in their talks with other characters, which are no other than the murder himself, or his son or his ex- wife (a solid Mira Sorvino), who teaches piano lessons to their daughter Emma; not to mention the police. So what about the rest of the world? Is it possible that there's no one else to talk to? The film's only couple of wide shots, I'm almost sure, are a shot of dozens of cars at the exit of a baseball game and one of a family home seen from a street light. Dwight goes with his son to baseball games and talks only to him, his mother or the police; Ethan stays at home and talks to people on the Internet who have lost their children the way he did. The rest of the conversations both men have with anyone are only in the film so we can see how disturbed they are inside: voices fade away, the surroundings lose focus. Another thing the movie loses is tension; tension that can be felt the moment of the accident and is never recuperated. How are we supposed to feel tension if every aspect of the movie is conducting our feelings, wherever they're going?
Let's just say that there's a way of filming the suburbs, kind of what Sam Mendes does, that requires showing the viewer at least the essence of a place where peace is disturbed. And if that essence is the family and not their environment, well, it's not enough with a scene full of smiles and lovely music and family love. It's probable that we're going to need more, which is why it's not also enough with great performances. I hate to go into comparisons, but Terry George knows that: not so long ago he showed us hell inside hell, peace inside that hell, and hell inside that peace. And, this is very important, he was a mere observer, who didn't tell us where to stand. That's also why I love the moral dilemma of "Gone Baby Gone" so much. In "Reservation Road", there are no bad guys, or good for that matter. There can't be: the movie doesn't allow it.
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