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Reservation Road
John Burnham Schwartz
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Reservation Road"

In an emotional showcase story about two fathers' reactions to a hit-and-run accidental death of a child, the detail I appreciated most was the total absence of alcohol. Neither the father who lost his son nor the driver running off and subsequently racked by guilt resorts to the bottle to seek solace in the aftermath of the tragedy. A refreshing and disciplined choice given the standard cliches.

Unfortunately, appreciation for a overextended immersion into grief becomes kind of thin, as well. The first thing an actor looks for when reading an offered script is what chances the role provides for displaying his or her acting skill. No doubt, one might have thought this script provided plenty to hang performances on -- perhaps Oscar winning ones. Trouble is, the actors who took this on must not have gotten to the part when the hook holding up all that promise had broken off the wall from the weight of the emoting required. The gravity of grief has rarely been portrayed with more melodrama.

Set in Connecticut, 1998, in the novel by John Burnham Schwartz who adapted it into a screenplay with director Terry George, two father and son relationships are quickly established as most loving. Avid -- if not obsessive -- Boston Red Sox fans, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer and ex-husband with visitation rights, and son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) attend the game that clinches the series. But it goes into extra innings and ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino) is on the cellphone (did they have those in that year?) complaining about the time. At last, well into the night, he races Lucas home on Reservation Road to return the lad to his mother.

At the same time, Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly) Learner, on their way home from a student concert with offsprings Josh (Sean Curley) and Emma (Elle Fanning), stop for some refreshments at a roadside gas station. Josh, ordered to stay in the car while the rest of the family goes inside, fails to comply. Just as Ethan emerges from the station he's horrified to see Josh on the roadway where he's hit by Arno's SUV. In the traumatic moment, he fails to get a good look at the man behind the wheel.

Arno's SUV crawls indecisively to a pause several yards down the road, then drives on, explaining to Lucas that he just hit a log. Hit and run. Almost unreasonable for a sober lawyer, but he can't face up to it in front of Lucas.

With lies and misrepresentations, Arno agonizes over turning himself in before he's caught while Ethan's rage over his son's killer doesn't stop. Grace is all but pulling hairs over Ethan's inability to let the police do their work or to think of anything else.

This being a small town, with a supposedly small number of law firms, Ethan goes to one and winds up hiring Arno to aid his efforts. A bit much to swallow for reality's sake but it leads to a hairy problem for both and a resolution with a suprising outcome.

Was this a reach for the brass medal in the form of an Oscar nomination? The actors give it their all, and reach deep into their available range, exploring the spectrum of rage, fear, grief and determination. Frankly, Connelly, with less screen time, emerges best with at least one moment that is almost scarily legitimate. What personal tragedy could she have used as an emotional reference point to bring that out, I wondered as I watched it.

Which is not to say that Rufalo and Phoenix weren't capable of being convincing. It's just that the single notes they were playing became a bit tortuous. Which may be the point, but not good for Oscar prospecting.

The key to the suspense -- and there is some -- is the question of whether Dwight is going to do the smart thing and turn himself in (he considers it, makes a tape for his son to watch after he's incarcerated, actually goes to Sergeant Burke with the intention of confessing but is treated as the lawyer on the case, forestalling it, and all but explodes with self-guilt); and, on the opposing side, whether Ethan's vigilantism was going to pay off. Both men are human, sympathetic (if not pathetic), figures.

It makes for moments of suspense and drama, but the over-elaboration produces an exhaustion level that dissipates engagement with the moral question being mined for meaning.

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Mark Rufalo and Joaquin Phoenix
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