It feels like anything I say about the plot will be a spoiler, but what can you do? I've just watched the movie's trailer, and everything I'm about to tell you is in it.
We have two fathers, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo). Ethan is a college professor and a contented family man; Dwight is divorced, his life a mess, though he adores his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson). One night Dwight briefly loses control of his car and hits a kid standing on the side of the road, killing him instantly. Panicked, Dwight drives away. The kid? Ethan's son.
The men do not know each other, of course, and state troopers are combing the area looking for SUVs that match Ethan's vague description of the car that hit his son. Ethan's wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) are devastated. Ethan is consumed with finding justice. He joins Internet support groups for families of hit-and-run victims. He seethes to know that even if the perpetrator is caught and convicted, he'd probably only get 10 years in prison.
Frustrated by the cops' inability to find the doer, Ethan goes to a law firm to see what outside help he can get. One of the attorneys at this firm, the one assigned to his case, is Dwight Arno. That's right, Ethan unknowingly hires as his lawyer the very man he's looking for.
On paper, that sounds like a juicy scenario, like something out of "The Departed," and maybe it played better when it was on paper, in John Burnham Schwartz's novel. But this isn't a crime thriller. It's an intimate drama about people coping with loss and grief. Such a contrived situation feels out of place.
(The other huge coincidence, the one that doesn't serve any purpose, is that Dwight's ex-wife happens to be young Emma's piano teacher. The only reason I can fathom for this development is that it gives more screen time to Mira Sorvino, who plays her.)
Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo do give impeccable performances, as is their custom, the former obsessed with justice, the latter racked with guilt. Grief is in this season -- see also "In the Valley of Elah," "Things We Lost in the Fire," even "The Brave One" -- and Phoenix and Ruffalo compare favorably with the other heavy-drama heavyweights.
Jennifer Connelly, unfortunately, must fill the generic role of Wife of Man Who Is Lost to His Own Obsessions. She also has one ill-advised scene of anguish where she blames herself for her son's death -- a perfunctory, obligatory detour in movies like this.
The director is Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda"), who co-wrote the screenplay with the novelist on whose book it is based. One scene stands out as particularly forced and clumsy. In it, Dwight's son Lucas tells him about an incident at school where a boy threw a water balloon, accidentally hit a teacher, and then wouldn't own up to it. He was a "no-good coward," Lucas says. Since Dwight is currently struggling with whether to turn himself in for his hit-and-run, he is struck to the core by Lucas' anecdote, and he pathetically offers up defenses for the cowardly balloon-thrower. The parallel to his own situation is laughably unsubtle, not the kind of thing that earns an audience's respect.