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On Down the Road 

In the subtle 'Moonlight Mile,' flawed, lovable characters endure the murder of a loved one.

The intricate, and sometimes confining, systems we create for grieving and coping with loss are detailed in Moonlight Mile, a stirring new drama featuring rising star Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Joe Nast, a young man whose fiancée is killed in a random act of violence in 1973 in her tiny Massachusetts hometown.

As the movie opens, we see Joe dressing for the funeral of Diana, his girlfriend and intended. He already had been living with Diana and her parents, Ben and JoJo, in preparation for the wedding and his new job in Ben's modest real estate firm.

The horror of the act is in the past, but the shock lingers even as caterers must be arranged for the wake and friends and family keep the phone ringing constantly.

Even in these early scenes, the film's writer and director, Brad Silbering, juggles Joe's unsettling dream sequences and exterior detachment, creating for the character a still point of disorientation amid the surreal Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of small-town mourning.

Silbering has directed extensively for TV--from L.A. Law and NYPD Blue to Judging Amy and Felicity--and also helmed City of Angels and Casper for the big screen.

But Moonlight Mile is far and away his most sophisticated and personal work. It ought to be; the film was loosely based on a traumatic episode from his life.

Silbering was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer at the time of her 1989 murder by a stalker in her Los Angeles home. Robert John Bardo, now serving a life sentence in prison for the crime, traveled there from Tucson and obtained her home address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The details of Moonlight Mile--from its period and location to the circumstances surrounding the lives and death of its characters--differ significantly from those of the Schaeffer case, a wise choice on the filmmaker's part.

Here, Diana accidentally dies in a diner at the hands of an unhinged husband of a waitress. Diana dies simply because she's in the way, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Silberling avoids the distracting issue of celebrity stalkers. The story he wants to tell concerns the emotional landscape of loss experienced by sweet, normal and flawed characters who share little more than a deep love for a victim.

Joe doesn't at all dislike his would-have-been in-laws, who are played with all the depth and awkward humor you'd expect from Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon. In fact, he initially seems comfortable with the fact that he will remain living with them to keep the memories of Diana alive.

But when Joe finally sorts through his feelings of grief (and equally important, guilt) and shares them with Ben and JoJo, things become even more complicated.

An added complication is Joe's growing attraction to postal worker Bertie Knox (relative newcomer Ellen Pompeo, a magnetic presence), who has been waiting a few years too long for her MIA boyfriend to return from Vietnam. She also oversees the neighborhood bar that her boyfriend once owned, but Ben has charged Joe with coercing her to sell it to make way for a shopping mall.

As Joe, the 21-year-old Gyllenhaal navigates these murky emotional waters so naturally he makes it look easy. Joe's gentleness and good humor make the character a perfect vehicle for the actor's patient and restrained acting style, which he has used to excel in roles about bewildered, thoughtful young protagonists in such films as October Sky, Donnie Darko, Lovely & Amazing and The Good Girl.

Although he has received well-deserved praise for his previous work, Gyllenhaal reaches new reserves of depth here. And he gracefully interacts with seasoned acting vets Hoffman and Sarandon. They in turn contribute elegant depictions of fussy little man Ben, whose office is across the street from the diner in which his daughter died, and tough-talking JoJo, who struggles with alcoholism and writer's block.

The always-reliable Holly Hunter brings a terse compassion to the role of the non-nonsense lawyer leading Joe, Ben and JoJo through the criminal trial of Diana's killer. The anti-climactic scenes in the courtroom seem on the surface unnecessary to the plot and to the characters' healing, but they provide important context for the story.

Silberling's film is not perfect; it verges at times on the mawkish. But with it he also makes a legitimate and sincere attempt to crawl inside of loss, understanding that in it is the potential for renewal. The movie's sentimentality does not dilute its hopefulness.

Moonlight Mile borrows its title from a Rolling Stones song that has a permanent place on the bar's jukebox. The tune carries a bushel full of significance for Bertie. Here's a sample from the lyrics:

"The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind / Just another mad, mad day on the road / I am just living to be lying by your side / But I'm just about a moonlight mile on down the road."

One of the finest compositions of the early-'70s Stones, the song subtly wrestles with yearning and need and the journey to change. As does this film.

Moonlight Mile
Rated NR

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