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Photograph by Macall Paloy
ROAD WORRIER: Joaquin Phoenix mopes his way through 'Reservation Road.'

Road to Ruin

In 'Reservation Road,' Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Connolly teach that weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry

By Richard von Busack

IN A SHREWD fugue in Pet Sematary, Stephen King illustrated a scenario for pure terror: a father, a 4-year-old son who likes to play "Get away from Daddy" and a two-lane highway where 18-wheelers roar by at top speed. Terry George's monotonous Reservation Road, based on a novel by John Burnham Schwartz, tries to twist that idea into knots. Never has there been a movie more in need of a haunted pet cemetery that brings back the dead.

Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) is returning from an outing where his children were performing classical music; young son Josh (Sean Curley) had gathered fireflies in a jar and left the family car to release the bugs when they all stop for gas. Unfortunately, one Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), speeding home from a Red Sox game that went into extra innings, is juggling his cell phone as he drives. He wants to return his son, Luke, to his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino), since she's a stickler for promptness. Thus Dwight doesn't see Sean on the road until it's too late.

Dwight speeds off, hiding his car in the garage, suffering the tortures of Raskolnikov as the police comb the area for evidence in the hit-and-run death. Then comes one of those coincidences that only a malign fate or an even more malign screenwriter can cook up: searching for a lawyer to investigate the incident for a civil suit, Ethan hires the guilty Dwight. Hiding from his own client, Dwight meanwhile tries to bond with his own son, knowing that he may be heading into jail.

Meanwhile, Ethan withdraws into the Internet. As his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connolly), tries to draw him back out, Ethan lurks in chat rooms with those who have lost children, searching for advice and visiting web shrines to those killed by hit-and-run drivers. Maybe I'm bloody-minded, but it seems as if there is material for a black comedy here: a man, under the influence of grief, removing himself from his family in favor of the company of electronic phantoms.

In this earnest, sobbing drama, there's very little to give the eye rest. In the background blandness of the seaside community, George aims for a neutral autumnal look. The interiors are as funereal as the interiors. Inside, every object is meant to tell us one thing: Luke loves the Red Sox—we can guess that since he seems to live in a suburban branch of a fan store. For some reason—because he's playing a college prof?—Phoenix is carpeted ear to ear in an acrylic beard. It's almost exactly the one that Hasbro glued to my old G.I. Joe doll's face to make him look butch. Thus muffled, Phoenix does the unthinkable: he tries to out-grieve Jennifer Connolly in her own movie.

And what happened to this actress? Why did she decide to become the screen's reigning Mater Dolorosa? The Hulk, A Beautiful Mind, Blood Diamond, House of Sand and Fog and Tears and Sniffles. On occasion, the lugubrious stuff works, as in Waking the Dead, yes, but she was so sleek and funny in Little Children that one hoped she was going to get away from roles where she had to exist in a constant state of precipitation.

As for Ruffalo, the on-the-nose casting gives him nothing to illustrate except guilt. The part oscillates between two points: his fear and his attempts to spend quality time with Luke before he heads back to jail. Actually, I was more struck by one of the supporting actors, the rough-skinned Antoni Corone, looking like the kind of police sergeant who has seen his share of trouble.

Corone is the only actor who is reserved: he has a grip on the underplayed style that could have installed some serious grief in the audience. When Ethan asks the policeman just exactly how many of these hit-and-run crimes get solved, he replies without hesitation or patronization: "I don't know, but I can find out for you." That may seem like a bland line in print, but it's unusual in the kind of melodrama where the cops are generally understood to be unfeeling do-nothings.

In Ethan's one classroom scene, George tries to rattle the metal skeleton of the World Trade Center. A someplace-east-of-Suez student claims that America has gone soft because it doesn't know how to suffer. Cut to Phoenix's suffering eyes, as the mouthy student apologizes. Later, Ethan mistakenly believes that it was an Arab diplomat's car that ran over his son. For that kind of current-events underpinning, Reservation Road will be called "searing" in reviews. But the back-and-forth shuffle on the matter of fanatical grief shows no real opinion. The film sympathizes with the parents who don't give up, while at the same time showing how Ethan's obsession almost ruins his life. The film stresses that taking the law into one's own hands is wrong, even if it's an understandable impulse.

The thesis is so open that anything can walk right in. What swells the film with self-importance is the example of Paul Haggis' Crash and the insistence on our connection with cars that pass in the night. Only connect, only connect, drone the sounds of the wheels on the road. As was said of Crash, Reservation Road is a driver-training film with pretensions.

Movie Times RESERVATION ROAD (R; 102 min.), directed by Terry George, written by Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz, based on Schwartz's novel, photographed by John Lindley and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and Mark Ruffalo, opens Oct. 26.

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