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Men have a hard time with feelings. This seems to be the major revelation in Reservation Road, a big ol' masculine melodrama about loss, grief and guilt. The sunny and saccharine opening scene bodes ill: The camera pans over a lovely Connecticut outdoor recital, performed by perfect children, watched by rapt parents. Your focus is 10-year-old cellist Josh (Sean Curley), adored by his father, Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), and mother, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), even by his little sister, Emma (Elle Fanning).
Within minutes, the idyll is ruptured beyond repair, when another father, this one a divorced, unhappy lawyer named Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), slams his SUV into little Josh at a gas station. It's nighttime, and Dwight is late getting 11-year-old Lucas (Eddie Alderson) home to his distrustful music teacher ex, Ruth (Mira Sorvino), following a Red Sox game. The accident is horrific — all slamming cuts and careening camerawork — but Dwight decides to drive on, leaving Josh's parents wailing and bewildered.
What follows is a two-part study in how each father deals with his ordeal. In this study, the girls (Grace, Ruth, Emma) serve as utterly conventional means to articulate the men's roiling emotions. While Ethan immerses himself in chat rooms for grieving and vengeful parents of dead kids and stalks a Saudi diplomat with an SUV resembling the vehicle he saw that fateful night, Grace is left to look after Emma herself. While Ruth tries to provide a stable home for Lucas (with her new husband), Dwight makes a desperate-seeming plea that she bend the visitation rules so father and son can attend the World Series.
The sad dads' ups and downs provide more than enough plot, but Terry George's movie, based on John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel, piles on ludicrous intersections by which the men might meet. When Ethan needs a lawyer, guess who he hires? And when Emma has a music teacher, guess who she is? Such contrivances provide for plenty of tense close-ups wherein the men can express their anguish wordlessly (and sometimes, with dire dialogue, as in, "It's the son of a bitch who stole our son's life, that's who to blame!" or again, "What kind of person could do that?").
As Grace and Ruth cope — both women focused on helping Emma to perform in a recital in order to "honor" her brother — the men act out, meanly, short-sightedly, even violently. Unsurprisingly, their hard time with feelings becomes everyone else's.
Directed by Terry George,A Focus Features release