Reservation Road was shot, and takes place, in and around Stamford, Connecticut. I live in Stamford, Connecticut. Joaquin Phoenix plays a bearded husband and father of two. I'm a bearded husband and father of two. Phoenix's college professor Ethan Learner is married to Jennifer Connelly. Were it not for my beloved wife, I would like to be married to Jennifer Connelly. And yet despite such powerful similarities between this on-screen fiction and my own life, there's almost nothing identifiably realistic about Terry George's adaptation of John Burnham Schwartz's novel, which seems determined, whenever possible, to resort to preposterous plot twists at the expense of actually plumbing its grief-stricken characters' anguished psyches. As with his previous Hotel Rwanda, the director tackles a grave dramatic subject - here, a child's death and the ensuing desire for revenge - only to skirt around unpleasant truths, feigning interest in the personal cost of retribution for both victim and victimizer while gorging himself on portentous music and encouraging overcooked histrionics from his cast. The resultant nonsense is In the Bedroom redux, but squishier and stupider.
On the way home from a seaside orchestral concert featuring their cellist son Josh (Sean Curley), Ethan (Phoenix) and Grace (Connelly), along with older daughter Emma (Elle Fanning), stop to fill up the family SUV at a gas station. While everyone else is distracted, Josh follows mom's advice to release some captured fireflies from a jar, a decision that proves fatal when lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) and his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson), returning home late from a Red Sox game, come speeding around the corner and, thanks to a distracting cell phone call, hit the boy. Dwight, already upset about his ex-wife Ruth's (Mira Sorvino) nagging, panics and drives away, leaving Ethan and Grace to pick up the pieces of a now-shattered life. This cataclysmic narrative catalyst is Reservation Road's finest scene, due largely to Phoenix and Connelly's horrified reactions to the tragedy at hand, which have a dumbstruck numbness that - when matched by their artless husband-wife rapport - captures not only agony but also the way in which people, in times of crisis, subtly attempt to protect fellow loved ones. Their authenticity is bracing, even more so given that George stages the scene with clunky crosscutting that diminishes, rather than heightens, the sudden, shocking impact of the catastrophe.