Late one rainy night, George Dunlap (Albert Finney), a successful writer, comes to give his oldest daughter, Sherry (Dana Hill), a birthday present. George and his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) have been separated for a short period, and they've tried to be "grown-up" about their broken marriage, even to the point of grudgingly accommodating younger lovers, Sandy (Karen Allen) and Frank (Peter Weller). Gradually, some tension builds between them; George is openly angry and clearly confused, while Faith is miserable when she's alone but puts on a subtly flirty, needling manner around her volatile husband. When Faith opens the door to George, her face is stiff with determined anger, and his face is puffy with suppressed temper. She's not going to let him in, and he's not going to go away. Director Alan Parker lights this impasse very harshly, and he uses a hand-held camera to capture the ensuing chaos, as George smashes his way through plate glass, forces Faith outside, knocks her down, and slams the door shut, blocking it with a chair. "How do you like it?" he howls. "How do you like being locked out of your own house?"
This is only the beginning stretch of one of the most stomach-churningly realistic views of marital recrimination ever put on film, all the more upsetting because the couple's small children (played by Viveka Davis and future TV kids Tracey Gold and Tina Yothers) are used as foot soldiers in their war with each other. Sherry is on her mother's side from the start, which infuriates George, so he runs upstairs and starts beating her with a hanger, then begs her for forgiveness; he looks like a swollen, chastened child when his anger is spent. Finally, completely demoralized and humiliated, George leaves the house and, following his instincts as always, starts to run to get to his car. Will he cry? Throw up? Both? Such queasy feelings will probably overcome any reasonably sensitive audience member several times before this film is over.
Shoot the Moon has several scenes that are nearly as painful to watch as this primal family confrontation, such as a long single take of Faith in a bathtub where she smokes some grass, lightly sings the Beatles's "If I Fell," and goes through a series of bitter emotions that feel so private that you can't believe a camera and a crew could have possibly been there in the room with her to catch them. Keaton is so emotionally naked in this scene that there's something almost otherworldly about her face. She's so deep inside herself that, paradoxically, it's as if she's shining a searchlight back at you; as she tries to reach something buried and private, so do you. This is acting on the highest possible level, and it will certainly come as a shock to anyone who only knows Keaton from her fluffy work of the past 20 years; there was a brief period when she gave several indelible dramatic performances, and this is definitely the best of them. As for Finney, if you really want to see great acting, watch the way he waves his hand at his wife right before he makes the horrible but gutsy gesture of defiance that ends the movie on a note of total, helpless destruction.
Unfortunately, Shoot the Moon has some serious problems that get in the way of these unforgettable performances. There are several unaccountable male Jewish stereotypes floating around and picture-postcard views of lakes and ducks that feel like filler. Though Parker's way of going for the jugular can be very effective in the big moments, he lets lots of small, deliberately banal domestic scenes just dribble away. It's a shapeless piece of work by the screenwriter, Bo Goldman; sometimes the random slices of life between the various traumas are suggestive in a disorderly way, and at other times they're just arbitrary. The soundtrack makes plaintive use of the song "Don't Blame Me," played tentatively with one childlike finger on a piano, and this harsh, lonely sound fills in a lot of the gaps, but not all of them.
Parker and Goldman seem to want this battling couple to represent a sort of romantic '60s point of view, and they show up the younger lovers as shallow, '70s-style hedonists. George and Faith fight because that's the way they feel most spontaneous and alive; this is expressed vividly during their low-comedy reconciliation in a restaurant after her father's funeral, a wild switch in tone that works only because the acting is so damn good. Though this loose, farcical scene comes as a relief after all the misery on view, the broadness of the writing kills any chance of real believability. In spite of all its flaws, however, this mixed bag of a movie is so good on divorce, plate-smashing fights, and the bad behavior of disappointed lovers that it remains a small classic.