Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and Grace (Jennifer Connelly, in a thankless role) are the proud parents of young Josh. While returning home late one evening, the family pulls over to a gas station for supplies. Also speeding home is Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) with his son. When Dwight loses control of his car, he swerves wildly, killing Josh on the side of the road and fleeing the scene. For Ethan, grief ripples through his system like fire, unable to manage the death and stomach the inability of the police to find the perpetrator. For Dwight, the guilt is overwhelming, but in an effort to keep his shattered life together, he says nothing. As their lives move on, Dwight and Ethan are brought together through unforeseen circumstances, twisting the knife deeper, challenging Ethan's sense of pacifism.
Directed by Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda"), "Road" isn't a film of easy answers, yet it's far from a hollow art-house journey of damaged characters. It's a traditional drama set against the motions of unbridled grief, and it offers the mass-audience appeal of a twisty series of revelations, intended to provoke outrage and suspense. Much like Sean Penn's "The Crossing Guard," "Road" asks hard questions of personal responsibility and the true meaning of justice.
Adapted from the novel by John Burnham Schwartz (who also co-wrote the screenplay with George), "Road" offers emotional arcs and acts of bereavement so forceful, only the finest of performers could pull off the delicate struggle of placid social obligation vs. interior disintegration.
Where Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo take these roles is where "Road" finds its pulse. The performances are mighty, with each actor tackling sensitive articulations of struggle. Phoenix, transforming himself into a suburban dad with his bushy beard and Average Joe flannels, towers over the picture with his howl of loss. Eschewing the familiarity of his loved ones to find comfort with other hit-and-run victims on the internet, Ethan is a quivering portrait of frustration, challenging those around him to solve the case, which forces the discouraged father to confront his own propensity for cowardly acts of violence.
Ruffalo has the more intricate part, and his performance rings true with the type of soul-wrenching repulsion that comes with Dwight's every hesitation. Beaten down by his divorce (the ex is played by Mira Sorvino), his day job as a lawyer, and his lackluster parenting skills, Dwight is at a complete loss over how to process the murder, much less the shambles his life has become. Many of the film's finer moments are rooted in Ruffalo's thunderstruck reactions, especially as Ethan and Dwight unknowingly draw closer together.
What "Road" is predicated on is this hive of connections and coincidences, constructed to keep the focus as fixed as possible on the main characters. It's to the production's credit that this potentially iffy material never flops over into outright caricature. George keeps an eye on every dramatic beat, lacing one scene into the next with precision, making the audience believe that Ethan and Dwight's lives could logically intertwine. It's a stellar creation of colliding fates that becomes the backdrop for the performances beautifully, never allowing laps of logic or a puncture of atmosphere to spoil this profound procession of guilt.