“Reservation Road” Cast:
Joaquin Phoenix as Ethan Learner
Jennifer Connelly as Grace Learner
Mark Ruffalo as Dwight Arno
Eddie Alderson as Lucas Arno
Elle Fanning as Emma Learner
Mira Sorvino as Ruth Wheldon
Sean Curley as Josh Learner
Cordell Clyde as Jimmy McBride
Antoni Corone as Sergeant Burke
Gary Kohn as Norris Wheldon
Directed by Terry George
“Things We Lost in the Fire” Cast:
Halle Berry as Audrey Burke
Benicio Del Toro as Jerry Sunborne
Alison Lohman as Kelly
David Duchovny as Steven Burke
Alexis Llewellyn as Harper Burke
Micah Berry as Dory Burke
Omar Benson Miller as Neal
John Carroll Lynch as Howard Glassman
Robin Weigert as Brenda
Paula Newsome as Diane
Sarah Dubrovsky as Spring
Maureen Thomas as Grandma Ginnie Burke
Directed by Susanne Bier
Note: This Double Feature Review is presented in the interest of giving those trying to decide between two personal family dramas opening this weekend a comparative opinion to help decide which one’s right for them.
“Things We Lost in the Fire” is an emotionally-draining but still uplifting film about grief and redemption that should put Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier on America’s radar, while “Reservation Road” is far more conventional in its storytelling and far less effective for the effort.
This being October, things start to slow down and get more serious as studios roll out heavy dramas to try and get an early start on Oscar season, and while both of these offerings deal with family, loss and grief, they go about this subject matter in drastically different ways, one being far more traditional and conventional than the other.
Then again, “Reservation Road” does have a number of built-in limitations by being based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, about how a tragic hit and run accident affects the lives of two family men. Joaquin Phoenix’s Ethan loses his son when Mark Ruffalo’s Dwight accidentally hits him with his SUV and then flees the scene. The grief felt by Ethan and his family is compounded by Dwight’s guilt over what happened, and he tries to spend as much time with his own son as he can, knowing that he’ll eventually have to confess and face the consequences of his earlier decision. Much of the film deals with the effects of that guilt on Dwight, while Ethan desperately tries to find the man who killed his son feeling that the police aren’t doing a good job with the case.
Susanne Bier’s first American film “Things We Lost in the Fire” is based on an original script by Allan Loeb, allowing for a lot more freedom in its structure and storytelling. It starts with a funeral for Steven (David Duchovny), the husband of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), then flashes back to memorable moments they spent together with their two young kids. The key is that after Steven’s death, Audrey feels the need to find his childhood friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) who’s life has been destroyed by drugs, but they’ve remained friends and continued to spend time together despite Jerry’s problems. After learning of his friend’s death, Jerry decides to clean himself up but in her grief, Audrey reaches out to Jerry and invites him to stay in their garage. The film follows Jerry’s attempt to get clean while becoming a surrogate husband and father for his best friend’s family.
Both films have a lot to live up to when you have dramas like “The Deep End,” “In the Bedroom” and “Million Dollar Baby” setting such high standards. For the most part, these are both two-handed character pieces, but “Road” often falls back on plot developments, traveling the route of a Hitchcock thriller as it follows Ethan’s desire to find his son’s killer and avenge his death. By comparison, “Things” always stays focused on the complex relationship between its two main characters. Although it’s clearly the simpler premise of the two movies, “Road” tries to make things more complex in the way that it interplays the characters, but it feels contrived how Ethan, Dwight and their families are constantly running into each other, and the dialogue isn’t particularly stimulating, just slightly better than a Lifetime movie.
The situations are far more realistic and believable in “Things” due to the strong performances by Del Toro and Berry, the latter being on a par with her Oscar-winning role in “Monster Ball.” Jerry is certainly one of Del Toro’s more complex characters in terms of the many different sides we see of him whether he’s alone with Audrey or playing with her kids or dealing with his addiction, and Berry’s able to match him beat for beat in their powerful scenes together. Because it tends to fly against convention while dealing with very real human situations and emotion, you can’t predict every moment and beat in Bier’s film, and it covers a lot of ground as it creates a rich tapestry of layered emotions within the evolving relationship between Audrey and Jerry. At first, she’s angry that her husband confided in Jerry with things he never told her, and she also can’t deal with the fact that Jerry makes headway with her kids where her husband never could. Thankfully, the film does not go the obvious route by having the two of them fall in love.
Even though equal time in “Reservation Road” is spent between Phoenix and Ruffalo, the latter’s performance is far stronger, and it often overshadows his Oscar-nominated castmates. Phoenix seems to be phoning this one in, and his only really solid scenes are the ones with Ruffalo, particularly their climactic confrontation in the third act, but some of his scenes with Connelly and his daughter, played by Elle Fanning, are so overwrought and heavy-handed that it takes away any believability. Fortunately, Ruffalo more than makes up for it with his part of the story, and the scenes between him and Eddie Alderson, the young actor playing his son, are the strongest parts of the film.
Along with pulling great performances out of her cast, Bier has made a visually stylish film, shooting in unconventional ways with cinematographer Tom Stern, usually involving extreme close-ups on the faces of their stars during key moments, and this adds a lot to making “Things” something special. Director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) shoots “Reservation Road” in such a conventional way that it does little to elevate the material beyond just showing events as they occur.
The only time where “Things” falters is towards the end when it starts beating you over the head with the meaning behind the title, as Audrey continuously drones on about the “things they lost in the fire” in an attempt to make it more significant in the bigger picture than necessary. Other than that, it’s a rich dramatic experience, one that gives you a lot to think about well after it’s over. “Reservation Road” is okay, but doesn’t leave such a long-lasting impression.
Reservation Road opens in select cities on Friday, October 19, while Things We Lost in the Fire opens in wide release.