I had read a lot about this movie before seeing it, so there were some reveals that I already knew about from my own curiosity as well as some misguided choices in what is shown in the trailer. I would have liked to see it fresh, so I will give plot points sparingly. Ethan and Grace Lerner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly, respectively) are a well-to-do couple living in an affluent Connecticut town who lose a child in a hit and run accident. Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is speeding home to deliver his young son to his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) and leaves the scene. The unfolding story effectively explores how the Lerner family struggles to cope with an unimaginable loss to an unknown perpetrator, and how Dwight wrestles with his fragile conscience while trying to hide his crime from the authorities. I think it works better to not know how Ethan and Dwight meet and proceed to dance around this event, but when they do, is when the real enjoyment of this film begins.
Sorvino does a fine job, and Connelly, in a larger and more difficult role, does a very good job, but this film belongs to the male leads. Ruffalo is great playing a seemingly decent man who commits a heinous crime he desperately tries to hide. This is Ruffalo's best work to date and if this film had been appropriately marketed and acknowledged, it would have been a breakout for him.
As our main lead, Phoenix is just wonderful. Ethan is a devoted husband and father whose world suddenly ceases to make sense following this tragedy and seeing him pull away from his family as he gets lost in his depths of grief and fanatical in his quest to find the killer gives Phoenix room to further display his remarkable range. An actor who is blessed with naturalness and unbridled by affectations and shortcut tendencies, his portrayal of a man eaten away by unspeakable sorrow and incalculable rage is harrowing. There is a confrontation scene late in the film when Ethan is so incensed he's physically shaking, his words come out as a jumbled growl, and it's startling to witness. Seeing Phoenix actually show that level of anger makes you wonder how or what he did to get to this place. That I can't know, but I do know that it's terrifying to see this man come undone from the inside out.
Reservation Road is sad, but it doesn't wallow in a way that feels exploitive or cheap. It's a dual journey into one man's struggle to deal with a tragedy that feels beyond him, and the cowardice and humanity of a hunted man dogged by his own shaken ethics. This is a provocative, moving story that really deserves to be seen.