"Reservation Road" involves grim business, a chain of events tied to the accidental roadside death of a young boy. Despite felicitous casting, the film version of John Burnham Schwartz's novel is grim in another way.
The problem is not the acting. It rarely is. Actors typically are the last thing to mess up a movie: It's too hard to get everything else right, or right enough, in the earlier stages of a film's development. The problem here is a matter of a misjudged adaptation by Schwartz and the film's director, Terry George of "Hotel Rwanda."
Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly work hard and honorably in various keys of remorse and rage as Ethan and Grace Learner, Connecticut parents who stop off at a convenience store one night (this is early in the film). Their cellist son, gazing at the stars, is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. In the horrible blur of the accident Ethan fails to get a good look at the man fleeing the scene, or at the young boy asleep in the passenger seat.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dwight, the man behind the wheel, a local attorney with an oblique history of violence. His ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) keeps a sharp eye on their joint-custody son, whom Dwight loves. But now the father is living a lie, begun with the lie about coming back from a Red Sox game late at night and hitting a dog in the road.
Throughout "Reservation Road," which tells parallel and the intersecting tales of fathers and sons, Ruffalo has a pinched, lying-dog expression he covers up with a wan smile. As Dwight hides his telltale vehicle in his garage and labors under the strain of his secret, literature professor Ethan grows impatient and angry with the lack of progress the police are making on the case. He goes a little bit vigilante, more so than the character in the novel did.
Then comes trouble--the screenwriting kind. In the book, the two families' lives are in fairly close proximity (their kids go to the same school) but are connected primarily by one plausible coincidence: Dwight's ex-wife is a music teacher, acquainted with the deceased Learner boy as well as his surviving sister. On top of that, the film version adds a twist it cannot handle. Ethan now hires a lawyer to help nail the man who killed his son. The lawyer is none other than Dwight. And with that whopper, "Reservation Road" turns into Coincidence Lane. You needn't have read the book to be bugged by it.
None of this is a matter of fidelity or infidelity. The film version of "Little Children" took all sorts of liberties with the novel, and it worked beautifully. Here, though, the best efforts of the performers cannot authenticate a plot that no longer feels inevitable. It feels contrived. And the audience stays at a remove instead of entering someone else's nightmare.