It can happen in an instant: You’re distracted for a moment, take your eyes off the road, and—thump! It was debris on the asphalt, you tell yourself, a log. But you know better.
In his follow-up to Hotel Rwanda, director Terry George tackles another story of forgiveness, this time narrowing his focus from a nation’s internecine genocide to two Connecticut families whose paths collide in a terrible tragedy. On their way home from their son’s recital, Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) stop for gas, and the boy is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Behind the wheel is Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), but with his own son asleep in the passenger seat on the way home from a too-infrequent weekend visitation, the divorced dad keeps driving.
A law associate, Dwight knows he has to do the right thing and turn himself in, but, recognizing their time together is diminishing by the minute, he’s thwarted by his desire to create as many good memories with his son as he can in the time they have left and, frankly, by a system, short a suspect, that’s ready to put the investigation on the back burner. The case likely would go unsolved if, frustrated and enraged to the point that he’s neglecting his wife and daughter, Ethan wasn’t determined to find the culprit and exact revenge.
The powerful material here, based on co-screenwriter John Burnham Schwartz’s novel, is undermined by convenient characterization (Ethan’s wealthy idyll versus Dwight’s struggling dysfunction); thematically on-the-nose developments (Dwight’s son gets in a fight at school with what he calls a “no-good coward”); and too-coincidental plot points (Ethan turns to Dwight’s firm for representation). At the very least, Dwight’s ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino)—who, by the way, was both Learner children’s music teacher—knows what kind of car he drives and that he was in an accident the night the Learner boy was killed and so should be able to piece it together.
Still, compelling performances by the leads and George’s handheld, close-up, steep-angled camerawork and an atmospheric score, which together convey the characters’ anxiety at key moments, capture the emotional complexity of an impossible situation.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino
Director: Terry George
Screenwriters: John Burnham Schwartz and Terry George
Producers: Nick Wechsler and A. Kitman Ho
Rating: R for language and some disturbing images
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: October 19, 2007 ltd.