In an early scene in Terry George’s Reservation Road, Connecticut college professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) fields questions from a table of pupils. One vocal international student proposes that the natives among him are soft —intimating that New Englanders might feel pain more for lacking any immunity to it.
Ethan and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, astounding as the grief-stricken Grace) have, quite recently, lost their young son in a jarring hit-and-run accident. The driver, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is free yet increasingly tortured by guilt. George and co-writer John Burnham Schwartz (adapting his 1998 novel) urge us to draw parallels between the two men — at times too aggressively when their lives intertwine in somewhat farfetched ways. The most organic similarity, though, arises in the way the two experience pain, eloquently illustrated with tight, shaky shots of Ruffalo and Phoenix’s constantly grimacing visages.
George doesn’t disappoint in his first project since Hotel Rwanda, proving himself even-handed in his treatment of Rwanda’s genocide and Road’s accidental manslaughter by ably depicting characters that are alternately soft and strong in anguish. By the film’s agonizing climax — a vice grip on the senses — the central players emerge distorted by inner pains that no quaint Connecticut backdrop could negate.
Opens October 19