Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) has, as they say, a lot on his plate. As Moonlight Mile begins, he’s dressing for his fiancée’s funeral, in her parents’ home, on Boston’s North Shore. Jo (Susan Sarandon) and Ben (Dustin Hoffman) are very nice, and they have a lovely, doting dog named Nixon. Still, and understandably, the mood is somber and tense. Still, after the reception, they “dish” and so relax, sharing frustrations with all the pathetic small talk (“Are you enjoying our town?”) and unhelpful observations (“You must be exhausted, all of you”).
Jo receives a pile of self-help books from these well-wishers, one titled These Things Happen, but the truth is, these particular things don’t happen very often: Diana was shot in an ice cream parlor, hit by a bullet meant for the killer’s estranged wife. Loss is hard any time, but the suddenness and violence of Diana’s death, not to mention the lingering duress of the trial, make this “thing” especially difficult. Such details also make Brad Silberling’s movie fit a little too neatly with the recent popularity of media considering grief and death rituals (In the Bedroom, The Son’s Room, Six Feet Under). This despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it’s based on his own experience, the murder of his fiancée, Rebecca Schaeffer, star of My Sister Sam, shot by a deranged fan outside her apartment in 1989. It’s a grim story, and the press coverage of Moonlight Mile is milking it for all it’s worth.
The film itself initially “deals with” unspeakable tragedy in imagery and language that are considerably less mawkish than Silberling’s City of Angels (1998). As Ben, Jo, and Joe try to get on with their lives, they handle their horror, anger, and despair very differently. Jo, a writer, finds herself unable even to imagine writing; she burns the self-help books in an effort to stave off the “cliché parade,” wears her bathrobe and drinks tea. Her elaborate, noisy disarray bothers Ben, who maintains self-control by focusing his energies on work, namely, commercial real estate. He’s buying up a street’s worth of lots in order to build a mall (this being 1973, malls look both odious and promising, in the way that “plastics” did back when Hoffman played Benjamin Braddock). “I’m great in a crisis,” he says. “You always need one of me around.” He convinces forlorn-feeling Joe to join in the venture, such that he is (weirdly) fulfilling a commitment he made to Diana, to partner with her father after the wedding.
Joe wants to please Ben, or thinks he does, mostly for lack of a specific way out of it. He goes so far as to go to dinner at the home of a local wheeler-dealer in the commercial real estate scene, Mike Mulcahey (played by Dabney Coleman, so you know he’s trouble). When Mike and his wife are surprised that he’s “still tied up in that,” suggesting that their daughter is an appropriate means to move on, Joe goes splat, in a way that makes you just want to hug him (at least, it makes the daughter smile admiringly from across the table): he describes grisly details of grappling — the “coffin business,” the effects of a high caliber weapon, the trouble of cleaning out her room (“Who wants her stuff around?”). It’s a virtuoso moment, and Gyllenhall, bless him, doesn’t get showy. Rather, he contains, speaking carefully, allowing the words to sink in.
No surprise, the deal Joe was supposed to be sealing with Mike is off, and Ben is upset. At this point, finally, Joe realizes that he dreads the future he’s falling into, out of an inability to move, a combination of depression and sympathy. At night, while sleeping in Diana’s room (surrounded by her “stuff”), he dreams of her ghost coming to visit him; to escape, he starts sneaking out at night (and it’s not a little creepy, if practical, that he’s staying in her room).
If Joe’s resistance to his Ben-associated fate occurred only in this unplanned, vaguely juvenile way, you can still understand it. On its surface, his (silent) dissent makes all kinds of sense. Walking the streets at night, visiting local establishments, he looks appropriately anxious and bewildered. But then Moonlight Mile provides Joe a too-convenient movie-style savior, in Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), the local postmistress who is herself wound up in loss and denial, concerning a boyfriend missing in Vietnam for several years. She looks after the MIA’s bar (which has a jukebox, providing poignant ’70s tracks over which she and Joe can bond). She doesn’t want to sell the bar to Ben, and Joe’s defense of her decision runs him into thorny conflict with his would-have-been father-in-law. The issues suddenly seem lit up with neon: possession, loyalty, gender, and power. Property stands in for memory, loss, and overwhelming desire, a metaphor the film underlines unnecessarily.
Jo understands the trouble with metaphors. But, as sensible, spirited, and generous (and so crisply played by Sarandon), as she may be, Jo is yet brought low by her heartache, sometimes more visibly than others, and always apparently surprised by her vulnerability. (She tries hard to keep her kick, observing to Joe, “Isn’t it the tits we have the same name?”) When she learns that her namesake has been sneaking out to see Bertie, Jo is momentarily undone, but speaks her piece straight-up, confessing that she has trouble with “this next part, you with another girl.”
Moonlight Mile also has trouble with this part, as it stumbles toward its efficient resolution, where everyone can come away feeling better. The primary means for this trajectory — aside from the Joe-Bertie hook-up — concerns the court case against Diana’s murderer, the one plot element that proceeds inexorably. Providing a more or less precise contrast with the stasis affecting Diana’s family, the case moves, if not exactly forward, then at least sideways and downward, into still more despair and frustration.
Because it is so awkward to watch, the preparation for trial seems at first a glimpse of how awful it is to wrangle with institutions colossally ill-equipped to make sense of murder (vengeance, or justice, hardly cuts it). And for a minute, the film follows this absurdity through to what looks like a meaningful illogic. Throughout Moonlight Mile, Jo, Joe, and Ben have meetings with the ADA who is prosecuting Diana’s case, Mona Camp (Holly Hunter).
These scenes — where the three sit across from her desk in a crowded, busy office — are brusque, vaguely uncomfortable, and not a little strange, all of which makes them compelling. Mona tells them she wants to seek the death penalty, sort of asks them what they think about that, and tends to fix each with a piercing look as she insists that they must all show up each day in the courtroom, to bring Diana “to life” through earnest displays of their “feelings.” That the three mourners are unsure of their feelings doesn’t seem to faze her. Unfortunately, Mona’s strategy comes back to haunt everyone, when, late in the film, Joe has his own mini-breakdown while on the stand, pledging to honor Diana’s memory by “telling the truth.” It’s to his credit that the unfussy, wholly convincing Gyllenhaal makes even this soapy contrivance mostly bearable.