Director Terry George should be mentioned as derisively as Paul Haggis by this point, having made a maddeningly innocuous film about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and, now, one about the grueling pain of losing your child to a hit-and-run driver that exhibits all of the dramatic urgency of waiting for your number to be called at a supermarket deli. Like Haggis, the director has an all-too-literal sense of black-and-white morality, when these stories should utterly depend on shades of gray. What Hotel Rwanda and Reservation Road‘s stories also hold in common is a stomach-churning sense of guilt by a central figure, though in both cases, George defers to actors to do all of the work and allows them none of the complexity and messiness of emotion an actual human being would evince in the same situation. The paint-by-numbers Hotel Rwanda was exaggeratedly praised and showered with accolades, presumably because the media is very reticent to criticize a movie that is about anything deemed politically important, but it’s unlikely that Reservation Road will be lavished with the same fawning, pat-myself-on-the-back ardor because its tragic scale is so much smaller.
A seemingly perfect couple, the too-aptly named Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly, both histrionic) lose their beatific eldest child after an accident involving an SUV driven by town lawyer and divorcé Dwight (Mark Ruffalo, keeping his dignity intact). Dwight takes off and spends the entire film suffering an internal moral crisis, debating whether he should fess up while serving as legal counsel—of course!—to the grieving dad whose anger ratchets up when he decides he wants revenge after consulting with online chat buddies who’ve suffered similar loses. Oh, and did I mention that Ruffalo’s furrowed-brow ex in the film (Mira Sorvino) was the late boy’s music teacher? Todd Field’s In the Bedroom covered the same bases six years ago, and if you can imagine Field’s film without the punctuated silences, the serene, observant performances, the non-lingering but astute sense for residential detail, you have this one pegged (or you can take a peek at this film’s trailer, which basically presents the entire emotional range of the movie in a compact, digestible gulp).
Such TV-movie style setups may have worked better in the original novel, but on the silver screen play as an eye-rolling chore. Since George has no discernible directorial style, most scenes just hang in the air and often cut jarringly into others just when the former seems to be revealing something about the characters’ emotional states (this is the type of movie where a door slamming in someone’s face substitutes for nuance). The manner in which even a highly functional, Kodak-ready family (run into the ground in both of George’s pictures) can believably unravel might have been within the film’s reach if George had eschewed the numbing exposition and cast his focus instead on the characters’ psyches; Ruffalo valiantly tries to dramatize the internal, but mostly just manages to look vaguely constipated. Instead, we’re treated to trite scenes of marital squabble that play like a soap opera. “I don’t know how to get you back,” asks Grace to Ethan at one point, but she may as well be directing her query straight to the audience.