Two Domestic Tragedies: Reservation Road and Things We Lost in the Fire

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Macall Polay / Focus Features

Jennifer Connelly, right, and Joaquin Phoenix star in Terry George's Reservation Road.

We lead our little lives — running errands, tending the kids, making our livings. We endure our modest setbacks — we're late getting home, when we get there we're not as emotionally attentive as we might be — and our minor triumphs — the children perform endearingly at the school concert. But this we almost never acknowledge that tragedy of the kind that can forever shatter our middle class contentment is ever and always only a heartbeat, a hair's breadth, away.

Two new movies, Reservation Road and Things We Lost in the Fire, take up this theme. In the former, a lawyer named Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is rushing to return his son to his estranged wife, when his car hits and kills a small boy. Panicked, he flees the scene, becoming a guilt-ridden hit-and-run driver. In the latter, a father goes out to buy ice cream for his family, intervenes in a street corner act of domestic violence and is murdered for his trouble. Both movies concern themselves primarily with the aftermath of these shocking crimes, Reservation Road far more successfully than Things We Lost in the Fire.

That's largely because Road, directed and co-written by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is much more plausibly character driven. We feel we know these people, possibly might even be these people in certain circumstances. There is, for example, something recognizably feckless in Ruffalo's character, clinging narrowly to respectability as a small-town lawyer, but running behind in everything from his support payments to his housekeeping habits. He loves his son deeply, but somehow doesn't seem to know what to do with him besides ordering pizza and watching ballgames with him. In particular, he has lost any hope of understanding from his tightly wound ex-wife (Mia Sorvino). And he is surely no match for Ethan Lerner (Joaquin Phoenix), implacably determined to find his son's killer and punish him with something more than a short jail sentence. Ruffalo is a very good goof-off, at once likable and infuriating, but eventually it is Phoenix who takes over the picture. He's playing a mild-mannered, doubtless liberal-minded college professor, who turns into an implacably vengeful monster as the police dither impotently with their investigation of his son's case. Even his shattered wife (Jennifer Connelly) attempts to move on — or perhaps we should say move back — to normalcy.

But he will have none of that, and a curious thing happens as he embraces what amounts to temporary insanity; our sympathy shifts to Ruffalo's Dwight, as slowly he begins to rediscover his better self. We have no doubt that, eventually, he will do the right thing and turn himself in. If, that is, the grief-maddened Ethan does not find and kill him before that happens. Put simply, the suspense of this movie derives less from its dramatic premise than it does from vivid, increasingly contrasted, characters. It sometimes feels a bit repetitive — each of the two men is stuck for too long in an immovable emotional place — but nonetheless its exploration of a terrible accident, which is also in some sense an incident we can imagine happening to us, is original and gripping.

Things We Lost in the Fire is in some ways more novel, but in ways that undermine our interest. It seems that Brian, the murdered husband (David Duchovny), has a childhood friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) that is everything he is not — a drug addict who has fallen to the most degrading level. Brian has stood by him through the years, doing what he can to keep him alive. His widow, Audrey (Halle Berry), invites Jerry to the funeral and then, unaccountably, invites him into her and her children's lives. She gives him a spare room and does her best to help him go straight. At which point the film turns into a more or less typical addiction story. Jerry seems to kick his habit, then relapses, then…But why go on? We've been here before and the possibility that Audrey may even be drawn to him sexually strikes one as an absurdly unconsidered bit of writing. OK, she's stunned and vulnerable, but even the usually persuasive Berry cannot make us believe that Audrey has totally lost her senses.

It is, however, Del Toro who drives us out of sympathy with this picture. The director, Susanne Bier, whose After the Wedding was a very good film, either can't or won't control him, and he is a shameless performer — constantly suing us for sympathy, by tricks that are either too cute or too crude. He's one of those actors who's always self-consciously acting like an actor instead of behaving like a human being. He's like a kid afflicted by the terrible twos, who having behaved badly then scrunches up his face into a mask of adorability in order to enlist our forgiveness. The result is the opposite. He makes us tired. And he makes the movie unforgivably tiresome.