As an analysis of the grief and subsequent healing process that must come with suddenly losing a loved one, "Moonlight Mile" rings with a resounding truthfulness that puts to shame 2001's well-acted but overrated "In the Bedroom
." Whereas director Todd Field's final answer to the same topic in "In the Bedroom
" seemed exploitive, turning a stark drama into a revenge thriller, writer-director Brad Silberling's (1998's "City of Angels") is heartfelt and genuinely believable. Silberling, who loosely based "Moonlight Mile" on a personal experience in grief (in 1989, his then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer of TV's "My Sister Sam," was murdered by a crazed fan), offers no pat or easy conclusions. In doing so, he transcends what could have been a sappy melodrama into a remarkably touching, unsentimental examination of the human condition.
"Moonlight Mile" begins at the funeral of Diana Floss, a young woman who was the innocent victim of a cafe shooting. In death, Diana has left behind fiance Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is currently living with her parents, real estate agent Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and writer JoJo (Susan Sarandon). In an attempt to hold on to the dreams they had for their daughter, Ben and JoJo cling to Joe as if he is still going to become their son-in-law one day. Meanwhile, as Joe struggles with a secret he has kept from them, he finds himself torn between the promises he once made to Diana's family, and a chance at a fresh start with the vivacious, soulful Bertie (Ellen Pompeo).
From the flawless performances from its cast, to Brad Silberling's tonally brilliant writing that understatedly mixes humor with heartbreaking tragedy, to the sumptuous period flavor of its early-1970s setting, "Moonlight Mile" is an astonishing achievement for all involved. Because Silberling has experienced first-hand the kinds of things his characters must face, he brings an unmistakable accuracy to its every moment that most films dealing with bereavement fall short of.
Humane quirks, such as Ben's insistence on answering the phone every time it rings, or JoJo's atypical approach to dealing with her daughter's death, or Bertie's ritual whenever someone picks her favorite song ("Moonlight Mile" by The Rolling Stones) off the jukebox at the bar she works at, are subtle inclusions that would have been overlooked in lesser hands. The textured period-specific music selections, spanning from Van Morrison to Elton John, for once aid extraordinarily within the storytelling rather than only as a way to sell soundtrack albums. Under the helm of Silberling, they add incredible depth to an already nuanced, character-rich screenplay.
Following 2001's "Donnie Darko
" and 2002's "Lovely & Amazing
" and "The Good Girl
," "Moonlight Mile" is Jake Gyllenhaal's fourth remarkable performance, and film, in less than a year. The entire picture is told through the eyes of Joe Nast, a loyal young man caught in a difficult situation he is unsure how to get out of, and Gyllenhaal carries it with the resplendent professionalism and capability of an actor twice his age. As Ben and JoJo, who deal with the tragedy in their lives in wildly diverse way, veterans Dustin Hoffman (1998's "Sphere") and Susan Sarandon (2002's "The Banger Sisters
" and "Igby Goes Down
") give powerful support to emotionally demanding roles. Holly Hunter (2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") effectively turns up in a few scenes as the Floss' understanding district attorney Mona Camp.
The real find is newcomer Ellen Pompeo, utterly luminous as Bertie. In what is one of best performances of the whole year, Pompeo brings extraordinary charm, freshness, andmost importantlydepth to her complicated character, the catalyst to Joe's realization that in order to be happy, he needs to move on with his life. Bertie is the essential ingredient to Joe's catharsis, and Pompeo and Gyllenhaal make a terrifically charismatic duo.
In a genre that so often relies on predictability, cliches, and mawkish sentiment, "Moonlight Mile" gets it exactly right. At no point can the ending be telegraphed, and the way in which Silberling opts to leave a key plot point unanswered is refreshing in its preference for character truth over obvious storytelling. And the last few minutes are veritably devastating and hopeful at the same time, managing to say so much by showing so little. The last image is, especially, unforgettable. "Moonlight Mile" is easily one of the most rewarding film experiences of the year.
©2002 by Dustin Putman