Nobody does sheepish guilt like Mark Ruffalo. The doggedly boyish-looking actor from You Can Count On Me, We Don't Live Here Anymore and (as proof he can do rom-coms as well as the next guy) 13 Going On 30 has a real penchant for playing remorseful dudes. That quality is perfect for his role as Reservation Road's Dwight Arno, the man who leaves behind Ethan and Grace Learner's (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) son in a hit-and-run and then must live with the consequences. I spoke with Ruffalo during the Film Festival, where, fittingly, he spent the entire interview in shadow.
Guilt is such a fascinating emotion. Is it difficult to play onscreen?
I'm just guilty in general. I'm Catholic - I was born guilty [laughs]. The fact that I came through the birth canal - I'm already screwed and going straight to hell for that.
Your performances often suggest vulnerability and conflicted emotions. Are you aware of that?
At times. I think it makes interesting cinema, and it's fascinating for an actor. The richer your inner life, the more nuance there is. What's not being said is always interesting for me.
I like how the script plays with our sympathies. At first we sympathize with Phoenix's character. Then it shifts to you.
That's probably the most remarkable thing about the movie. Very few people are going to be able to sit there in complete judgment and not at some point have some empathy for my character. I'm sure people will think, "That guy's a scumbag loser, he should rot in hell." But the movie cracks open the complexity of the issue.
We don't see much about your character's history with his wife and son. What kind of backstory did you have?
I relied a lot on John Burnham Schwartz's book. Dwight comes from an alcoholic family, which is suggested in the film. His father was verbally and physically abusive, and he has issues with alcohol himself. He had everything in the whole world to make his life great, but was just destructive and never allowed himself to flourish. All he has is his son. You realize that he's not just dealing with his relationship with his son, but his relationship with his father, and his father's relationship with his father.
Were you worried about sharing the screen with another strong actor in an equally big part?
Joaquin's one of the best. He's dangerous, spontaneous, alive. And he's emotionally tumultuous. When you share the screen with somebody like that, if you're up to it, you're going to have a great ride.
Bonus interview with co-star Jennifer Connelly
Oh how she got to that emotional place as a mother who's lost her kids:
On her unlikeable role in Little Children:
On her work on the upcoming He's Just Not That Into You:
On how she stays grounded:
RESERVATION ROAD (Terry George) Rating: NNN
Boy-man Mark Ruffalo delivers yet another intense performance as a guilt-ridden driver who accidentally runs over a boy, then leaves the scene of the crime and hides the incriminating vehicle. The dead boy's father (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks justice, and the two men's family lives begin to intersect in surprising ways.
This Crime And Punishment tale is beautifully filmed, and the way director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) shifts the audience's sympathies midway through is fascinating. But the thriller element feels superficial - there's something trashy and manipulative about the way it detracts from the movie's bigger themes.
See it for the performances, which should get some awards attention.