Some critics are using last year’s In the Bedroom as a cudgel against Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile. The “raw honesty” of Bedroom’s much-acclaimed angst-fest is being trotted out as a measure of the “falseness” of Moonlight Mile. Now, why is Moonlight Mile being called “false?” Simply because it allows its characters to both grieve and find humor in the world and their situation at the same time.
That In the Bedroom didn’t allow for humor in a grim situation is just one of my primary objections to the film. Anyone who has ever suffered through the grief of losing a loved one knows that the grieving process isn’t one long wailing, breast-beating session, but a complex series of emotions shot through with humor. In any case, it’s not a one-note affair. So in this viewer’s opinion, Moonlight Mile is by far the more honest and real of the two films, possibly due to writer-director Silberling drawing from his own life for the inspiration and emotional core of the movie. Silberling was engaged to Rebecca Schaefer (co-star with Pam Dawber on the TV series My Sister Sam), who was murdered by a stalker in 1989. After her death, Silberling became close to Schaeffer’s parents.
The resulting film, however, is by no means simple autobiography. The circumstances of the death are different, the time frame is altered to 1973 and the characters have their own lives and personalities. It’s clearly a work of fiction grounded in reality, but the reality that matters is Moonlight Mile’s emotional truthfulness.
The tone of the film — and its approach — are quickly established during the brilliantly sketched-in funeral. The somberness of it all is immediately shattered when the family’s driver starts the engine after having forgotten to turn off the radio, and Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” blasts into the car. Sheepishly turning off the radio, the driver surveys his passengers, only to be understandingly told, “We’re a little sad,” by Ben Floss (Dustin Hoffman), father of the deceased. Seconds later, Ben’s wife, Jo Jo (Susan Sarandon), leans forward and defiantly turns the radio back on. The funeral procession itself, juxtaposed with other people carrying on their lives as usual, deftly captures the heartbreaking strangeness of the event. It’s a great opening, made even better by the film’s ability to sustain that same degree of complexity, emotionalism and creativity throughout.
The movie takes its title from the Rolling Stones song “Moonlight Mile,” and this is no small point, since music is very much at the core of the film. Not since Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous has a soundtrack been so plugged into the era it evokes, nor so obviously been used by a filmmaker so in tune with the music. That Silberling chose a lesser-known Stones song foreshadows his approach to all the rock/pop music in the film; songs were chosen for their relevance to the story, the characters and the mood. This is no facile Top 40 collection used to sell a soundtrack album and goose a weak film; no one aiming for that dubious distinction would have chosen Marc Bolan’s “Twentieth Century Boy,” Elton John’s “Razor Face” (a particularly inspired inclusion in the context of the movie) or the Ohio Players’ “Fire.”
Silberling’s direction is invariably stylish, but it’s never a case of style overwhelming subject — or the beautifully written and acted characters. It would be hard to better the film’s cast: Jake Gyllenhaal — fresh from his fine work in Donnie Darko, Lovely and Amazing and The Good Girl — is perfect as Silberling’s onscreen alter-ego. Dustin Hoffman is brilliantly cast to take advantage of his tendency to act with both fists. Susan Sarandon may just give the performance of her career in the complex role of the grieving mother. Newcomer Ellen Pompeo immediately shoots to the top of the “stars to watch” list with her portrayal of Gyllenhaal’s new love interest, while Holly Hunter manages to take the basically two-dimensional role of a prosecuting attorney and make it real and interesting with a performance that suggests a much deeper character than anything offered on the printed page.
Some audience members will take exception to the handling — and the outcome — of the murder prosecution, but I found it intelligent, reasoned and ultimately the right approach. Moonlight Mile isn’t a film about death but about life — and how death is a part of life. A lot of movies try to be life-affirming; Moonlight Mile actually achieves that end.