Let's face it. Now is probably not the time for the movie about a Red Sox fanatic who fatally hits a 10-year-old boy then speeds off. But is there ever a good time for that movie, especially one as cheap as "Reservation Road"? The film is a dead-child drama that devolves into a parental revenge thriller that happens to be set during those happy fall baseball days of 2004.
Professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter, Emma (Elle Fanning), are on the way home from a delightful evening of watching their cello prodigy son perform at a concert. Meanwhile, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a private practice lawyer, and his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson), have to cut out of Fenway Park early to get the boy home to Connecticut before Dwight's ex-wife, Ruth (Mira Sorvino), berates him for missing his deadline.
He's flying down Reservation Road when he swerves into the Learners' son, who had been releasing fireflies from a jar during a gas station bathroom stop. Dwight brakes for a moment, but keeps going - one minute late and the ex will have a nuclear meltdown. She does anyway after she sees the black eye Lucas sustained in the accident.
It's a terrible day for the Learners. And one wracked with guilt for Dwight, who spends the movie in a moral pickle: turn himself in or not? Ruffalo does a yeoman job of dramatizing unimaginable stress. Ethan grows dissatisfied with the pace of the police investigation, so he hires attorneys to prod the cops. Guess whose firm he uses and guess who's put on the case. The movie has a few more coinkydinks like that. Not to mention the worst scene I've ever seen set in a college seminar. Ethan's students debate whether people in Connecticut suffer more than people in Africa or the Middle East.
This might be the sort of reductive relativism you'd expect from Terry George, the director of "Hotel Rwanda." There's probably a way to philosophize the idea that the privileged lack the capacity for true grief, but George, who adapted "Reservation Road" with John Burnham Schwartz from Schwartz's novel, seems to prefer juicing up a movie until it becomes a formulaic potboiler, just as he did with his film about the Rwandan genocide.
Ethan is consumed with rage and suspicion. He conducts an Internet search that brings him to helpful sites ("Things You Might Not Know About Fatal Hit-and-Run Accidents") and leads to a chat room for parents who've lost children in such tragedies. (Each chatter's name appears next a photo of the dead child.) Eventually, he buys a gun. Phoenix makes the descent convincing. Even if the performance blows all its gaskets in the last 20 minutes you can see a parent's sense of loss turning him into a justice-seeking madman. Connelly is marvelous as his rational counterpoint: Her character shares Ethan's pain, but should this death take the life out of the rest of the family?
The real problem with this movie isn't its trashy side - the "Death Wish" stuff is actually suspenseful. It's the creepy note of causal judgment that hangs over it concerning the potential nightmare of parental visitation and enforcer ex-wives (Sorvino's gentle performance actually cuts the character some slack). The Learners (that name!) are a perfect, scholarly, Volvo-driving clan whose lives are shattered by the spineless, divorced sports-nut lawyer in an SUV.