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, and--most importantly--depth 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
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.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman