Touchstone/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 115 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) pauses for thought.
If there was any doubt about the fact after City of Angels, his 1998 remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, then Moonlight Mile puts them effortlessly to rest: director Brad Silberling is an intensely emotional filmmaker. It’s a rare trait in Hollywood, where most on-screen emotion is carefully calculated to snare the largest percentage of the audience possible, where tearjerker clichés abound as the usual tricks are pulled out of the bag. Swelling orchestral laments, glycerine tears, over-the-top acting-school portrayals of grief and sadness and dialogue that could have been lifted directly from the pages of the collected works of Mills & Boon; they’re everywhere, and it’s hard not to be utterly cynical about them. Those who get to sit through a lot of these films, though, find themselves first gripped by a healthy sense of cynicism and, eventually, a genuine skill for restraining themselves from laughing out loud and tossing sarcastic comments at the screen. Tearjerkers are everywhere, but often you need to be an emotional cripple to connect with them.
Silberling’s brave attempt to film Dana Stevens’ Americanised version of Wings of Desire, though, hinted that he was more than capable of rising above such silliness. Able to extract believable, three-dimensional performances from his actors and largely resisting the urge to go for the blindingly obvious, he made it quite clear that not only was he a fan of the original, but that he wasn’t about to either emulate it or betray it; Wenders fans might have still been sceptical (and rightly so; this wasn’t the kind of film that invited reinterpretation) but for a mainstream romantic drama it was clearly above the average.
Which brings us to Moonlight Mile, Silberling’s first self-penned film and one which he’s been working on ever since City of Angels hit cinemas, having completed a first draft of the script a decade ago. Very loosely based on his own experience of having to cope with the loss of a partner (actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was murdered in 1989), it’s a film that, on the surface, looks like the last thing anyone chasing an evening of entertainment would want to sit in front of. No surprise there; death and grief is a hard sell at the best of times, after all. But Moonlight Mile (named after the Rolling Stones song, which features prominently) is far from being a depressing experience.
Bertie (Ellen Pompeo) lives up to the US Postal Service's rain, hail or shine policy.
It’s the early 1970s, and Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a lost soul. His fiancée Diana has died a mere three days before the couple were due to be married, and now Joe finds himself attending her funeral with her parents, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Jojo (Susan Sarandon), having to deal not only with his loss but also with the nervous and occasionally insensitive attitudes of the funeral guests and the people in the small town in which Diana’s parents live. Staying on for a while in Diana’s old bedroom and trying to help Ben and JoJo deal with the tragedy, he exists almost in a dream-state, unable to find a way to grieve himself. But that’s about to change; while tying up loose ends from the cancelled wedding, he meets Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), a forthright girl who works at the local post office and deeply understands what Joe is going through. The two become close as Joe tries to find a way to tell Diana’s parents the truth about what happened in the days leading up to her death.
We’ve been deliberately vague with the plot here, and that’s for a good reason; this wonderfully poetic story is all about the audience going on the journey on self-discovery that Joe takes, and to say too much would spoil the impact of many key scenes and plot developments. But suffice to say that this is not by any means a maudlin, morose story - quite the opposite. In fact, Silberling makes extensive use of gentle humour as he lets the story unfold, such as the all-too-real scenes of fake empathy from the guests at the funeral. These are incredibly strong, well-drawn characters, and no suspension of disbelief is needed to genuinely care for them; it’s a remarkable, honest and believable screenplay that never once delves into the cliché pot for a serve of cheese, not even for a second. Silberling directs with a perfect sense of pace, sensitivity and subtlety, coming across at times as a kind of gentle incarnation of Cameron Crowe and finding the same kind of affinity with his characters as Crowe does with his.
Of course, without strong actors the whole thing could have fallen flat. And fortunately, Moonlight Mile is blessed with a perfect cast from top to bottom. Hoffman is perfect as Ben - this is the kind of character he’s unbeatably good at playing, and he turns in a great performance in what is really a supporting role. Gyllenhaal’s expressive face and subtle acting are perfect for Joe, and Sarandon - always good - excels herself here. Also especially noteworthy is Ellen Pompeo, still establishing herself as an actor after small roles in Catch Me If You Can and, more recently, Daredevil. On the basis of her performance here we’ll be seeing a great deal more of Pompeo - in the crucial role of Bertie, she puts in a performance that is easily the equal of all three of her more experienced co-stars. And as if that wasn’t enough to make up a great cast, the ever-reliable Holly Hunter gets a few key scenes as the DA who’s trying to get some criminal justice for Diana’s death.
Throughout the nearly two-hour running time, not once - not even for a second - does Silberling go for the tearjerker option. Moonlight Mile is such a moving experience because the characters that inhabit it are honestly drawn, believable people that you actually care about, something that’s all too rare in mainstream cinema these days. It’s a genuine surprise of a film, one made with a real feeling for its subject matter, from the opening scenes to the touching dedication (not the one you might expect) at the end of the closing credits. Brad Silberling, you’ve made your first truly great film; let’s hope it’s not another four years until you do another one.
Dinner with Ben and Jojo.
Moonlight Mile was shot in Panavision using anamorphic lenses, and so should only ever be seen in its full 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which this DVD preserves fully. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s use of the wide frame is both intelligent and visually rich, and anyone watching a pan-and-scan rendition of it will be missing out not only on his thoughtful composition and framing, but also on some of the characters in key scenes. The 16:9 enhanced image on this disc is quite lovely to behold, and though the film has been intentionally transferred quite dark, this looks completely in keeping with the tone of the story and the locations. Viewed on a computer its decided lack of brightness is more apparent in a window on an otherwise vibrant desktop, but on a TV there’s no cause for complaint. It’s a warm, well-handled transfer which has been encoded at an often extremely high bitrate to avoid problems with compression; only the occasional burst of film grain in some dimly-lit scenes threatens to overwhelm the otherwise fine encoding.
The layer change, by the way, is extremely intelligently placed right in the middle of a scene at the one point where it is completely non-disruptive; only a short interruption of a quiet moment in the soundtrack gives it away.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman put in an early challenge for the 2003 DVDnet stare-out contest.
The sole audio track provided here is the theatrical Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which downmixes fine in stereo for those not equipped with full surround setups. This is obviously a very quiet, dialogue-driven film, and the mix does its very un-showy job extremely well, with clear centre-channel dialogue supported by subtle, naturally atmospheric effects around the surround stage. Mark Isham’s wonderfully restrained music score is also recorded in full 5.1 surround, and is extremely immersive when it is used as the main aural focus of some important scenes. The LFE channel is used to reinforce the score and the occasional burst of low bass, but it doesn’t play a critical role.
Brad Silberling seems to be a big fan of DVD and the opportunity it affords him to give fans of his films some insight into them. While the extras here aren’t as extensive as those provided on the DVD of City of Angels, the commentaries alone make it all worthwhile.
Featurette - A Journey To Screen: Produced for use as a half-hour promotional special on television and running 22 minutes without commercials, this J.M. Kenny-directed documentary is done very much in an advertorial style but does offer some interesting insights into the production via interviews with Silberling and his cast, with behind-the-scenes glimpses adding appeal. Trivia fans might notice that the narration is done by actor Amy Brenneman, who also happens to be Silberling’s wife (the couple last worked together on the pilot episode of her TV series Judging Amy). Presented in 4:3 full-frame with stereo sound.
Audio Commentary - Brad Silberling: The first of two fascinating and highly entertaining commentary tracks has Silberling talking almost non-stop about his movie (you can see why the actors in this film keep referring to epic four-hour meetings with their director!) For instance, the sight of Ellen Pompeo on screen early in the film results in a story about how she came to be cast, which lasts for a good eight minutes, then seamlessly heads off onto another subject with barely a pause for breath. One of the most enjoyable and informative commentaries we’ve heard in a long time.
Bertie and Joe.
Audio Commentary - Dustin Hoffman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Brad Silberling: The icing on the cake is next, as Silberling is joined by two of his lead actors for a commentary that’s a bit more free-form and light-hearted, but no less rewarding. Like the first commentary, the tangents are many - but there’s a bit more scene-specific stuff here this time. Great stuff.
Deleted Scenes: A collection of ten deleted scenes, with a friendly two-minute audio introduction by Silberling playing over the scene-selection menu (a really nice touch). The director points out that the released cut of the film was his definitive version, and that these scenes were all removed to serve the film. He then provides commentary for each and every one (which can be turned off, and needs to be in the case of the final montage if you want to hear the accompanying music!) The 4:3 letterboxed video is of borderline quality, but that’s to be expected. Total run time is about 15 minutes (and yes, there’s a “play all” option).
A heartfelt, funny, intensely moving film that was criminally ignored in cinemas, Moonlight Mile will hopefully find a larger audience on DVD, where it’s presented beautifully with some genuinely interesting extra features. It’s one of the best surprises of the year - do try and discover it.