It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
After the funeral is over and the mourners have come back to the house for coffee and cake and have all gone home, the parents and the boyfriend of Diana, the dead girl, sit by themselves. Her mother criticizes how one friend expressed her sympathy. And the father asks, what could she say? "Put yourself in their shoes." That little scene provides a key to Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile." What do you say when someone dies--someone you cared for? What are the right words? And what's the right thing to do? Death is the ultimate rebuke to good manners. The movie, which makes an unusually intense effort to deal with the process of grief and renewal, is inspired by a loss in Silberling's own life. The TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, his girlfriend at the time, was killed in 1989 by a fan. Silberling has grown very close to her parents in the years since then, he told me, and more than a decade later he has tried to use the experience as the starting point for a film.
"Moonlight Mile," which takes place in 1973, opens in an elliptical way. At first only quiet clues in the dialogue allow us to understand that someone has died. We meet Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), the fiance of the dead girl, and her parents Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon). They talk not in a sentimental way, but in that strange, detached tone we use when grief is too painful to express and yet something must be said.
After the funeral and the home visitation, the film follows what in a lesser film would be called the "healing process." "Moonlight Mile" is too quirky and observant to be described in psychobabble. Joe stays stuck in the Floss house, living in an upstairs bedroom, his plans on hold. Ben, who has lost a daughter, now in a confused way hopes to gain a son, and encourages Joe to join him in his business as a real estate developer. JoJo, protected by intelligence and wit, looks closely and suspects a secret Joe is keeping, which leaves him stranded between the past and future.
Gyllenhaal, who in person is a jokester, in the movies almost always plays characters who are withdrawn and morose. Remember him in "Donnie Darko," "The Good Girl" and "Lovely & Amazing." Here, too, he is a young man with troubled thoughts. At the post office, and again at a bar where she has a night job, he meets Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), who sees inside when others only look at the surface. They begin to talk. She has a loss, too: Her boyfriend has been missing in action in Vietnam for three years. While it is possible that they will mend each other's hearts by falling in love, the movie doesn't simple-mindedly pursue that plot path, but meanders among the thoughts of the living.