While I wasn’t expecting either of these films to be absolutely amazing, I knew that there was probably at least a 90% chance that they would both be good, serviceable movies that were worth a watch. Films like Reservation Road and Return to Paradise (dramas about tragedy and justice or the lack thereof) are hard to mess up. When they are at their best, they often turn into Academy Award-winning (or at least nominated) films. Even at their worst, they are generally still pretty solid as long as they have a good enough cast to carry the film. Generally films like these two titles include great acting performances, stories that are interesting but have usually been done before (or at least done similarly), at least a few scenes that will make you cry, and also some boring filler to help pad the film out to a 90-120 minute run time. That’s pretty much Reservation Road and Return to Paradise in a nutshell. I expected them both to be good but not great films and that’s exactly what I got out of them. Nothing more, nothing less. Ultimately, they are films that are worth watching if you have the time but are far from essential viewing.
Reservation Road (2007)
Let’s start off with the newer of the two films, 2007’s Reservation Road starring Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix. The film is about two families that are affected by a tragic accident that claims the life of a young boy. Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) is traveling home from a Boston Red Sox game with his son Lucas. He’s in a rush because his visitation rights for the weekend have expired and he’s late returning Lucas to his mother. On Reservation Road, Dwight becomes distracted for just a few seconds, loses control of his car, and strikes and kills a young boy who was letting some fireflies go by the side of the road. Instead of doing the reasonable thing and stopping to try to help (and cooperating with the police as he was only partially at fault for the tragedy), Dwight hesitates for a second before making the decision to keep driving. He makes this decision primarily because he is worried about losing custody of Lucas to his ex.
The victim’s father Ethan (Phoenix) witnesses the accident and got a brief look at the perpetrator but only knows a few details about him and the car who hit his son. As the police investigate the incident, the lives of both Ethan and Dwight start to fall apart. Dwight struggles with the guilt from his actions (though not enough to turn himself in like most people would) while Ethan worries that he won’t get the justice for his son’s death that he wants through the law alone. He becomes obsessed with solving the case himself and bringing the man responsible to justice. Complicating matters, the two families conveniently live in the same town/city and their lives become entangled in more than one way (including one ridiculously convenient way that I won’t spoil here).
Movies like Reservation Road are hard to go wrong with. This is the type of film that is consistently solid, though rarely spectacular. Films like this are almost never going to be worse than average but they also tend to top out at just slightly above average at best (3.5/5 or so). It’s hard to mess up a film like Reservation Road but it’s also very hard to find new ground to cover as this kind of tragic story has likely been covered hundreds of times in films (though probably not in this exact manner). It’s the type of film you throw on if you want a sure thing instead of taking your chances on a movie that may or may not be worth your time. Like a lot of films in this sort of “tragedy drama” sub-genre, Reservation Road fits pretty snugly in the good but not great category. There’s really not a lot about it that I feel strongly about either way. The biggest positive is certainly the acting performances from the always great Ruffalo and Phoenix. The only real negatives are the slightly bloated run time (which could have been trimmed by ten minutes or so from its 102 minute run time) and the lack of anything new in the storytelling. If you are interested in the concept, you’ll probably get what you’re looking for out of Reservation Road. If not, it’s probably a film you can skip.
One thing that I do want to write about is the interesting (not necessarily bad, just kind of unique) way they dealt with Dwight’s character. Most films make the perpetrators out to be monsters. For better or worse, Reservation Road attempts to make you feel sympathy for a person who refuses to turn himself in for a hit and run crime. He feels bad about it yet does nothing about it. The accident itself isn’t 100% his fault but not turning himself in (or driving his son home then returning to the police department afterwards) certainly is. While I’m sure there are some good people who accidentally commit a crime and struggle with whether or not to turn themselves in, I’m not sure how a person could live with themselves for months without their guilt forcing them to do the right thing. Dwight is not a good person and I’m not exactly sure why we are supposed to feel sorry for him.
Overall, Reservation Road is almost exactly what I expected when I researched it to see if I wanted to review it. It’s full of great acting, provides some tears, has an interesting though not very unique story, and could have used a little culling. It deserves a perfectly average 3/5, though drama fans will probably enjoy it more than I did.
Return to Paradise (1998)
If you could save a friend from the death penalty by turning yourself in and serving a three-year sentence for a crime you committed with them, would you? That’s the simple but interesting concept behind Return to Paradise. Three young men meet each other in Malaysia during their world travels and embark on weeks of partying, girls, and large quantities of cheap drugs. These men include Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), a New York hustler who’s only there because of a frequent flyer mile con, future architect Tony (David Conrad), and a save the world, hippie type in Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix). On their last day in Malaysia, Sheriff and Tony gift Lewis the rest of their drug supplies while Lewis stays an extra day waiting for his plane to Borneo to help out the orangutans.
Two years later, Sheriff and Tony receive some awful news from a woman named Beth (Anne Heche). The day they left Malaysia, Lewis was arrested for drug trafficking due to the large amount of “hash” found at the house they were renting. Lewis has been in prison the last two years and, because of Malaysia’s harsh drug trafficking laws, will be executed in a week unless both Sheriff and Tony agree to return to take three-year jail sentences for their part in the crime. If only one returns, they will have to spend six years in prison instead but Lewis’s life will still be spared. While Tony quickly decides to go back, Sheriff isn’t so willing to help his friend out (despite him being the main reason Lewis was in this predicament in the first place and not really having any reason not to go back unlike Tony who has a fiance). Beth spends the next week trying to convince Sheriff to do the right thing and save Lewis’s life. Return to Paradise is based on a French film from 1989 called Force Majeure.
To me, this dilemma seems like a pretty obvious decision and the movie doesn’t really make any arguments against it for the first two-thirds or so of the film. Of course you go and save your friend’s life, any decent person would do that. There’s no question about that. Three years in prison or someone dying over your selfishness (and a lifetime of having to live with your decision)? I feel like that’s a pretty easy decision for anyone who isn’t self-centered and the movie could have been over in approximately thirty minutes. For most of the film, this feels like a slam-dunk decision that 90% of the population would make. It isn’t until later in the film that the movie makes you think about your decision more. I feel like if a certain scene towards the end of the movie was moved up to earlier in the film, I could have actually related to Sheriff’s reluctance much more and it would have added more of an impact to his dilemma. Without it, you just feel like Sheriff is the biggest jerk on the planet. Considering the film almost entirely consists of Sheriff trying to make his decision (as well as Beth trying to convince him to do the right thing), this means we follow a very unlikable character for most of the movie. I feel like this is the biggest mistake the film made and it could have easily turned it into a well above average film.
Otherwise though, Return to Paradise is a very well-made film that is just a bit too long. Like Reservation Road, I have to give props to the film’s actors as all of the leads do a phenomenal job with their material. Even though his character is meant to be pretty unlikable, Vince Vaughn is great as Sheriff. Vaughn has a knack for playing surprisingly likeable schmucks and this is one of his best performances. Anne Heche is also pretty good in her role. Joaquin Phoenix and David Conrad are used much more sparingly (its pretty much the Heche and Vaughn show) but still shine in their briefer roles. Moving some scenes around would have helped the film a bit, but the story is still compelling enough anyway. I enjoyed Return to Paradise a bit more than Redemption Road but I still think it deserves the same 3/5 rating, though I thought about bumping it up to a 3.5/5 for quite some time before sticking with my gut.
Video Quality, Bonus Features, and Recommendations
Both films are appearing on Blu-ray for the first time in America, though Reservation Road is available via a European (I believe Dutch) release that is technically region 1 but over twice the price of this double feature anyway. Return to Paradise is completely new to the format to the best of my knowledge. Neither movie is really the type that you absolutely need to have on Blu-ray. They don’t have amazing visuals, dazzling special effects (or in the case of these two movies, any special effects at all), or anything else that demands that you watch them on Blu-ray. Still, both films look solid though unspectacular on the format. I somehow don’t have the DVD version of either film in my 10,000+ title movie and TV show library so I can’t say how big of an upgrade this is for these two movies. I can say that both films look solid though unspectacular on Blu-ray. Mill Creek may not have done a meticulous restoration of these films but they both look perfectly fine for what they are. While they aren’t the kind of movies you need on the format, I’m sure video quality sticklers who like these films will appreciate the upgrade.
Mill Creek Entertainment usually doesn’t include extras on most of their Blu-ray releases (especially their double feature sets) but this Reservation Road/Return to Paradise double feature is a surprise exception. While Return to Paradise only includes the film’s trailer (though the film’s original DVD didn’t offer much more than that in the first place), Reservation Road includes deleted scenes, a trailer, and even a 14-minute featurette (“Looking Back at Reservation Road”). While none of these extras are amazing or a must-watch, I am glad that Mill Creek actually ported some of them to this Blu-ray release.
Ultimately, both Reservation Road and Return to Paradise fit squarely into the good but not great category. Unless you love the concept for one or both of the films, neither is something you need to rush to seek out but I would absolutely recommend them if their stories sound interesting to you.
Reservation Road/Return to Paradise Double Feature was released on Blu-ray on January 14, 2020.
Buy Reservation Road/Return to Paradise Double Feature on Amazon: Blu-ray
We would like to thank Mill Creek Entertainment for the review copy of Reservation Road/Return to Paradise Double Feature used for this review. Other than receiving the review copy we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation. Receiving the review copy had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.