Moonlight Mile

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Moonlight Mile

The live-action version of Casper released in 1995 is exactly the sort of thankless project frequently taken by veteran TV directors looking to break into theatrical films. But it also seems, however accidentally, to have set a pattern for director Brad Silberling, whose second and third films—City Of Angels and Moonlight Mile, respectively—form a trilogy of death, loss, and spirits that hover around the living. A notable improvement on the pretty but bloodless City, Mile abandons the supernatural trappings to deal with those death leaves behind. Set in the early '70s in a small town whose young male population has been significantly reduced by Vietnam, Mile stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon as the parents of a woman murdered by a random stranger only weeks before her marriage. With nowhere else to go, her fiancé (Jake Gyllenhaal) has simply stayed put, living with his would-be in-laws and continuing with Hoffman's plan to take him on as a partner in the commercial real-estate business. Not that his newly formed family ties necessarily make the adjustment easier. Hiding untold depths of anger beneath layers of blustery paternal concern, Hoffman seems always two seconds away from a meltdown. A blocked writer, ex-smoker, and recovering alcoholic, Sarandon channels her frustrations into a wicked sense of humor undulled by her daughter's death, exuding an almost unnatural air of self-possession as those around her struggle with how to behave. Gyllenhaal is among the strugglers, as he grapples with unresolved feelings toward his dead fiancée, whose relationship with him was complex in ways that weren't necessarily reflected by its public face. Meanwhile, he strikes up a friendship with sad-eyed local Ellen Pompeo (a relative newcomer who gives a striking performance). It's virtually impossible to watch Moonlight Mile without thinking of last year's In The Bedroom, and it does occasionally play like a softer version of that film, cutting corners that Bedroom never would, particularly in its tidy ending. But even in these moments, Silberling (who also scripted, drawing on his own experiences as the boyfriend of murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer), remains committed to the messy tangle of emotions the situation demands, and he has a cast more than capable of conveying them. Hoffman and Sarandon work well together, and Gyllenhaal, who's carved out a niche for himself as the new face of internalized conflict, fits nicely into a role Hoffman would have made a meal of 30 years ago. With Silberling's eye for a compelling image and a cannily employed period soundtrack, they make the film more memorable for the blows it delivers than the ones it pulls.