The script - by director Terry George and novelist John Burnham Schwartz, whose book is the film's source - frames the fathers as distorted mirror images.
Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), easily riled and a screwup, is racing home with his son from a Red Sox game when he accidentally hits, and instantly kills, the son of Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix). At first Dwight lies to himself, and his son, that it must have been a log on the road. Then he hides his SUV in the garage.
Ethan, supremely patient and responsible, consoles his wife (Jennifer Connelly), his daughter (Elle Fanning) and initially has faith that the police will find the guilty party.
But as the weeks go by, Dwight neither confesses nor is charged. The shattering incident has the effect of making Dwight a more caring and careful father while Ethan grows increasingly impulsive and imbalanced, neglecting his family.
From hunched shoulders to furrowed foreheads, Ruffalo and Phoenix are world-class brooders, and their performances as men transformed by guilt and grief are quite fine.
But the commonsensical part of me resisted the filmmakers' unsubtle attempts to encourage my identification with Deadbeat Dad by discouraging my emotional sympathy with Deathwish Dad.
George, director of Hotel Rwanda, is better at directing actors than visual storytelling. Every time the camera tilted to suggest a character's shaken world or distorted worldview I didn't feel heartache, I felt headache.
Reservation Road **
Directed by Terry George, written by Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz, based on the novel by Schwartz, distributed by Focus Features. With Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino and Elle Fanning.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, disturbing images, adult themes)
Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/