Neil Jordan's The Brave One and Reservation Road are similar in that they're both about uncontrollable vengeance uncommonly welling-up inside an upper-class North easterner after the sudden, tragic loss of a loved one. In the former, Erica (Jodie Foster) loses her fiance. In the latter, Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) loses his 10-year old son. The major difference between the two is that Erica's loss is from a murder, while Ethan's is from an accident. Both characters walk identical paths toward an intended conclusion, but choose differently when the crossroads come.
Central to Reservation Road is the father/son relationship. Director Terry George begins the film by juxtaposing images of Ethan and his son with Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) and his son. It plays like a collage of recorded memories, because, soon after, the two couples collide on Reservation Rd. and their idyllic lives are permanently changed.
The film then takes a risk by shifting into a sort of cat-and-mouse thriller (the accident is a hit-and-run, and Ethan didn't see the driver...) between the fathers. On paper, the idea of using a child's death to drive a suspense drama seems cheap, but Terry George, and especially the performance of Jaoquin Phoenix, bring a sensitivity to the pursuit. Keeping the two fathers apart, for most of the film, brings out sympathy for both of the characters. This approach makes the final confrontation between the two men even more wrenching.
Reservation Road rises above Hollywood convention by not assigning knee-jerk stereotypes to character. George, and screenwriter John Burnham Schwartz, show that the impulse of payback is not unique to a certain class, region, or occupation, but a universal human reaction. Ethan is a wealthy geo-political professor from Connecticut. Like public radio host Erica, in The Brave One, these aren't characters you would expect to see alongside, say, a Charles Bronson or Pam Grier.
Looking back on the poor movie year that was 2007, it's interesting that two of its better films were thoughtful takes on the eye-for-an-eye code of ethics. Without directly addressing the Iraq war, both films do a better job of tapping into the conflicted conscience of Americans than do garbage like In The Valley of Elah, Southland Tales, Rendition, Day Night Day Night, and The Bourne Ultimatum. Those films flaunt a knowing arrogance about themselves, not wanting to communicate with an audience but to simply put them in their place.
Thank god for DVD culture. It allows us to stand back from the rush of year-end "what mattered" placement and reevaluate what was truly significant from cinema in that year. So forget about 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days... set that new 2-disc There Will Be Blood DVD to the side... in the long run, Reservation Road will be the one to fill their appointed slots.