Actress Elle Fanning survives roadkill brother

Having accidentally killed a child in a hit-and-run, attorney Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) turns his unfortunate experience into a life lesson. “Sometimes things happen that are out of your control,” Arno tells his young son in a fatherly bed time voice, “and those are the times when you’ve got to stand up and be a man.”

But the events in “Reservation Road,” though depressing, never really seem to get out of control. In fact, they are controlled — or rather, contrived — to the point of being totally unbelievable.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Ethan Learner, the man whose ten-year-old son (and sense of reason) died at the hands of Arno’s reckless driving. Grief-stricken and furious, Learner turns away from his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and daughter (Dakota Fanning’s little sister), and focuses instead on avenging — no matter what the cost — his son’s unjust death.

Through a series of increasingly improbable coincidences, Learner and Arno are brought closer and closer together. Arno is the father of the son of the piano teacher of Learner’s daughter? But of course! Arno is hired by Learner to track down his son’s killer? Obviously, there are no other lawyers in this unassuming Connecticut town.

Thankfully, the over-contrived plot leaves a little wiggle-room for the leading actors to show off their talent. Phoenix, Ruffalo and Connelly each have a certain talent for portraying grief and misery, and their performances keep the audience engaged. As Arno grows progressively wearier, Ruffalo appears more and more lifeless and hollow, his eyes bloodshot and glazed over. Ironically, this is when his performance comes to life. Jogging at strange hours of the night, drinking and smoking heavily, Ruffalo is too restless to be tired, too guilt-ridden to sleep. Torn between turning himself in as the boy’s killer or sticking around as his son’s much-needed father, Arno emotionally (and physically) tears himself apart.

Phoenix, on the other hand, spends a significant amount of his time overacting. His unnecessarily loud performance — huffing, puffing, quivering and bellowing — is better suited to a larger-than-life character like Johnny Cash. However, the moments when Learner’s anger is slow-burning, rather than explosive, show Phoenix at his best. In a bedroom scene where Learner quietly refuses to have sex with his wife, Phoenix subtly conveys a mix of shame, resentment and rage.

Connelly’s scenes, though relatively sparse, breathe some sobering realism into the film. As a heartbroken mother moving on with life for the sake of her remaining child, Connelly is at once restrained and evocative, demanding that her husband rip himself away from his world of vengeance and return to life with his remaining family, where groceries need to be bought and children need to be cared for. She finesses marital tension with subtlety reminiscent of her 2001 role in “A Beautiful Mind.”

“Ethan, I don’t know how to get you back,” she says. “Tell me what to do.” Connelly takes seemingly simple lines like this and transforms them into an urgent plea, thereby placing Phoenix’s character on a significantly lower moral plane.

At least cinematographer John Lindley’s work is spot-on; he switches from trembling close-ups to beautiful panoramas at exactly the right moments. When Learner and Arno meet face-to-face for the first time, the camera alternates between both of their points-of-view, creating emotionally intense, nerve-wrecking effects.

Still, the climax of “Reservation Road” is utterly predictable, just as the film itself never takes any chances. Director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) should take his characters’ advice: “Be a man,” and do something original next time.

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