Neither involving as a study in grief nor compelling as a thriller about conscience, the cat-and-mouse tragedy "Reservation Road" is a misery windup so schematic and obvious it reduces its crisis-stricken characters to little more than emotional bumper cars.
Based on a 1998 novel by John Burnham Schwartz, who adapted it with director Terry George, the Connecticut-set film quickly gets to its defining moment: a fatal hit-and-run. Night falls when divorced dad Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is rushing to the house of his fed-up ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) to return their son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) after a late-ending Boston Red Sox game. At the same time, Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are returning home from a cello recital featuring their 10-year-old son, Josh, when they stop at a secluded gas station on a wooded stretch of road. In a life-changing flash, Dwight's barreling SUV accidentally kills Josh as he stands by the road, and in a panic Dwight drives off, leaving Ethan -- who saw the collision -- in a state of horror over the sudden loss of his son and bewildered anger over a callously anonymous driver.
What follows is a meager back-and-forth as the two dads grapple on parallel tracks with the ramifications of the event. Ethan allows his mourning to morph into a sleepless obsession with catching his son's killer at the expense of his wife's desire to move on and the authorities' floundering investigation. Dwight, meanwhile, feels the tug of confession even as he sinks deeper into the moral abyss of covering up his crime in the hopes of continuing with the one thing he cherishes: his relationship with his own son.
The emotional turbulence, however, is given only a surface examination by the unimaginative script and direction. Director George, whose tragedy-concentrated "Hotel Rwanda" was a fortunate case of shattering truth and rich performances overpowering pedestrian filmmaking, is at a loss to find meaning in this grim story's forced contrivances. Grief has rarely seemed so ordinary.
The cast should have been a boon. Phoenix has an anguish-ready countenance -- a hunched melancholy like a needy animal -- that's the most suitably nervy element to the film's efforts to mine the dark side of coping. But that doesn't mean it's an illuminating performance, just solid and expected. The same goes for Connelly, who's been banking hollowed-out portrayals as if they were going out of style.
Ruffalo's dilemma, on the other hand, is thornier. He has a harder time meshing his ability to find soulful nuance in Dwight's pressurized situation with George's sloppy, in-your-face camera placement and hurried tone. The single-minded direction and editing never leave the movie's best actor alone long enough to make an impact beyond scared glances, which then strain the credibility of the all-important suspense angle.
"Reservation Road." MPAA rating: R (for language and some disturbing images). Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and AMC Century City 15, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-4262.