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All the Way Back

With 'Moonlight Mile,' writer-director Brad Silberling ends an emotional odyssey

September 22, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU

On a crisp morning, a middle-aged couple and a young man who appears to be their son are on their way out of the house. Dressed in smart dark clothes, they walk up to a boat of a car--it is the early '70s in a provincial East Coast town--and glide to their destination to Sly & the Family Stone's funky hymn "I Want to Take You Higher." The universe pulsates around them, warm and vibrant like a sea of anemones.

Kids ride their bicycles. A young couple cuddles in each other's arms. An old man savors the ritual moment of his morning coffee. The sun glows through a lush canopy of trees. The sky is almost unbearably bright. It is the dance of life, but the passengers in the car observe it listlessly. They are going to a funeral. The couple are burying an only daughter; the young man with them is her fiance.

This series of tableaux from the opening of "Moonlight Mile"--a new picture starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal--is emblematic of the bittersweet tenor and unorthodox themes of the film, itself the culmination of an artistic and personal crucible for filmmaker Brad Silberling. "I knew I wanted the family on the journey from their home to the funeral to have to bear witness to the full swirl of life: It just churns on, it doesn't stop for you," he says of the unusual overture to what he calls his "emotionally autobiographic" film.

"Moonlight Mile" sprouted from a bitter kernel of personal history--the 1989 murder of Silberling's girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer. But the end result, a picture that details with unfettered specificity the process of loss and grieving, suggests that even the darkest of tragedies can yield remarkable gifts.

The film is named after a vintage Rolling Stones love ditty tucked on the group's "Sticky Fingers" album, and shares with the song a tone that is both weary and hopeful. It tells the journey of Gyllenhaal's protagonist who, after the funeral, finds himself stunned into paralysis by the loss and completely bewildered about his future. Drawn into a close relationship with the parents of his fiancee, he fumbles toward emotional clarity--and maturity--with them by his side.

It may seem unlikely, yet it all happened more than a decade ago to Silberling, 39, who wrote and directed the movie. In his treatment of a delicate topic, the filmmaker displays a boldness and directness that can only be grounded in firsthand experiences. His story seeks to reveal the sense of utter befuddlement people experience after a great loss. His characters, most remarkably the couple embodied by Sarandon and Hoffman, exist in a perilous space filled with messy, ragged emotions and unexpected complications. They behave awkwardly; they say contradictory things; they use malicious wit and outbursts of laughter as coping mechanisms.

Opening in limited release on Friday, the film lands on screens in the context of a nation freshly stirred by the anniversary of Sept. 11, and seems poised to achieve a larger resonance at a time when the random loss of a loved one is a concept vigorously alive in the collective consciousness. But in all likelihood, audiences will either empathize with the sorrows of the protagonists or be turned off by them.

After all, profound grief is deeply isolating, and in many ways those not immersed in it can't relate.

"When you lose someone, I think there is an expectation that the whole world would stop," explains Gyllenhaal, the 21-year-old actor who plays Silberling's fictional alter ego, Joe Nast, with wonderful aplomb.

In fact, the rhythms of life continue on unaltered, and it is only the bereaved who are suddenly off-key; to them the universe appears slightly askew. With "Moonlight Mile," says Gyllenhaal, "someone who's experienced that has put it on screen."

The film has been more than a decade in the making, although it began as a family tragedy, not a career project. In 1989, Silberling, who grew up in Los Angeles, was just out of film school and had embarked on a promising career directing television dramas. Schaeffer, his girlfriend at the time, was the star of the TV sitcom "My Sister Sam." In July of that year, she was followed to her Los Angeles home by a deranged fan who had obtained her address from the Department of Motor Vehicles. He shot her to death.

Silberling, then in his mid-20s, says he was stunned by the loss. Equally perplexed were his girlfriend's parents, a couple in their 40s who had lost their only daughter. The two parties hardly knew each other but soon grew unexpectedly close. "We had a relationship that went from zero to 60 on the speedometer," the filmmaker recalls.

He recognized in the parents the woman he lost. "They were like my girlfriend in stereo--all the personality and the wit, all was there." But what he initially thought would be a continuing relationship with her turned into a close-knit bond with her family.

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