We have seen these people before: content, progressive, well-off types driving Volvos, with folk art in the den and solid jobs in academia. The Learner family in their safe, white slice of Connecticut might be irritating John Cheever clichés. That is, if it weren't for the penetrating examination of the American character and a restless, reckless need for justice that gives Reservation Road from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) the tang of insights greater and vaster than these people and this place.
The trauma anticipated in a million small ways that opens Reservation Road is the hit-and-run death of Josh, the 10-year-old son of Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace Learner (Jennifer Connelly). There has been a run on grief and loss in films lately, including Things We Lost in the Fire and The Brave One, but Reservation Road is a film that gets the histrionics and the tone right. People clam up, shut down and in moments of release can barely squeak out their words, gripped by guilt and rage.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the site of the accident is now deemed a crime scene. Even at this fundamental level, the family has its child taken again; draped in a cloth and left by the side of the road as the police continue their investigation and the Learners return home. For once Jennifer Connelly, whose adult career has often centered on characters consumed by grief in House of Sand and Fog and A Beautiful Mind, here offers a kind of mourning worthy of the script by George and the source novel's author, John Burnham Schwartz. Ethan and Grace put up a brave front for their other daughter, Emma (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister), but in private they pick at each other, break down and search for some reason to blame themselves or each other. The film makes it clear why divorce often follows such traumas.
Grace's reaction to the death of her child is first blame and then to sink into a paralysis that keeps her from leaving the house. Ethan, however, finds his distraction from his child's death in a search for the hit-and-run driver. Looking for a resting place for his grief, Ethan fixates on the questionable succor of justice.
No technological invention was ever as able to convey the obsessive, gnawing dimensions of grief as the Internet. Ethan trolls the electronic highway finding kindred spirits on a website, unable to talk to Grace about their loss.
Obsession also consumes Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), the divorced father who killed the Learners' child while driving home with his own son from a Red Sox game. In an instant, this professional loser whose personal life is in chaos seems to recognize that one more mistake will mean he loses custody of his son. While Ethan hunts the killer, the killer turns his insides out with guilt and worry.
Ruffalo is as right for channeling the cagey desperation and self-interest that has often surfaced in his onscreen roles (You Can Count on Me) as Phoenix is at conveying blind self-righteousness (Walk the Line). Both reveal something ugly but also pitiable in victim and villain. One suspects Dwight's hunted, desperate quality did not originate with the accident. His own father was a bully, he has an ex-wife (Mira Sorvino), a cutthroat law partner and an aching relationship with his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson). One of the saddest expressions of the alienation inherent in modern life – as lonely as Ethan's Internet-directed grief – is how Lucas' and Dwight's relationship centers on occasional weekends of carryout pizza and watching the Red Sox games that keep real dialogue at bay.
As much a portrait of how grief manifests itself in many ways as anger, guilt and obsessiveness, Reservation Road is also a film about the American approach to death. Like the morally ambivalent, new-jack vigilante played by Jodie Foster in The Brave One, Ethan is not content to simply heal. His recovery insists on retribution. And with retribution come more victims.
In one of college professor Ethan's classes, Iraq and the American ownership of tragedy bring the parallels to the surface, but it is hard to miss the connection between Ethan's blind need for revenge and America's. His struggle bears an uncanny resemblance to our own national warmongering, rooting out terrorists abroad to answer to the death at home but finding no relief once the retribution comes. Americans crave words like closure and justice, but death and grief tend not to honor the three-act narrative structure or the institutions, from prison to war, we use to contain them.