Given the current political climate, it doesn't seem coincidental that the past couple of months have witnessed the release of three films about the soul-corrupting emptiness of revenge. While Death Sentence gave the sturdy revenge subgenre a B-movie spin, Neil Jordan's The Brave One and now Terry George's Reservation Road take an artier, more cerebral approach, though Road is too focused on the personal to address the larger political ramifications on anything more than a fuzzy allegorical level. George's follow-up to Hotel Rwanda doesn't even appear to be a revenge movie initially, but once grief-crazed father Joaquin Phoenix begins to delve into a fascinating, though underexplored, online subculture of parents seeking justice for their dead children, he barrels down a collision course with Mark Ruffalo, the man who accidentally killed Phoenix's son (Sean Curley) during a hit-and-run accident.
Road casts a grungy Phoenix as a sad-eyed professor whose life, career, and marriage to Jennifer Connelly begin to unravel as he sinks deeper and deeper into morbid despair following Curley's death. In an ironic, melodramatic twist, Phoenix's insatiable thirst for vengeance leads him to hire Ruffalo and his law firm to assist in the quest for justice.
Ruffalo and Phoenix function as dark mirror images. The accident that killed Curley destroys them both. Phoenix creeps steadily toward becoming a bitterness-choked vigilante with a thousand-yard stare, scaring even his own wife, while guilt and shame eat away at Ruffalo from the inside. Both men seek salvation through their relationships with their beloved sons: Phoenix feels he must enact vengeance on Curley's killer to attain closure, while Ruffalo tries to atone for his crime by recommitting himself to his own troubled child (Eddie Alderson) and preparing a confession. A movie that begins bleak and intense and never lets up, Road puts everyone through the ringer emotionally: the perpetually haunted and intense Phoenix especially, but also Connelly (who seems to choose roles these days based exclusively on how depressing they are), Ruffalo, and an audience confronted with nothing but raw nerves, queasy tension, and agonizing, painful emotions. It's a relentlessly downbeat, well-acted melodrama that's easy to admire, but intentionally impossible to enjoy.