George Dunlap (Albert Finney) creeps down the stairs of his country house, into his study and sits at his desk, then weeps as quietly as he can. Recovering, he takes the telephone and calls his mistress, Sandy (Karen Allen), to tell her he misses her while his wife, Faith (Diane Keaton) gets ready to go out in the next room, tackling their four rowdy daughters. However, the eldest, Sherry (Dana Hill), has been listening in on George's call and when he emerges from the study asks him who he was talking to. He makes up a fib, but she can see through it: she knows the marriage is in trouble.
Shoot the Moon (the odd title refers to a card game where winning involves high stakes) was not much of a success when it was initially released, perhaps coming too soon on the heels of Kramer vs Kramer when what audiences really wanted to see was E.T. The Extraterrestrial for their modern family movie. Yet over the years it has gathered a growing cult who sees its emotional rawness and inability to settle on a tone for its tale of marital woes as a strength, contributing to a sense of authenticity in the break up and wild flailing of George and Faith's union.
From a script by two-time Oscar winner Bo Goldman, who already had his adaptations of One Flew Under the Cuckoo's Nest and Melvin and Howard under his belt, this was entering more personal territory, coming at a stage where divorces were becoming increasingly common and women were finding that they were no longer wishing to simply play the homemaker and suffer in silence if the love went out of their marriage. Yet Goldman recognises that things were not as simple as that, not as easily pinned down, so for George the old cliché "Can't live with her, can't live without her" is particularly telling, even if he is trying to settle with someone else.
George is a successful writer - we see him winning a literary award at the beginning - but the veneer of respectability that he and his wife enjoy is deceptive and too often they act with inadvisedly impulsive behaviour. So this can go from a sequence like something out if The Shining where he smashes his way into the house he is no longer a part of to attack Sherry in a blind rage, to the very funny bit where he and Faith sling insults at each other over a restaurant table only to rekindle their love, however briefly. No matter how articulate he thinks he is, the film observes what a petulant fool George can be, while Faith's sniping does little to endear her.
And yet, there are scenes where they both are sympathetic, sometimes simultaneously, that make us understand what they cannot. As often with director Alan Parker, his use of music is exemplary, from Faith singing the Beatles "If I Fell" in the bath and breaking down when she realises the lyrics, to the incredibly menacing part where she is seduced by new boyfriend Peter Weller while The Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" is heard, an indication of how the film will end. Not that the ending is a neat one, as it leaves just as much unresolved there as it did at the start, but some respond to this as an aspect of the story's believability. Every time you're thinking this is getting to be a trendy relationships drama, something will bring you up short, such as when Sandy tells George she loves him, but if he lets her down she will easily find someone else. Needless to say, the cast are excellent, even the children (Hill, who died too young, showed great promise), but it's Finney's ridiculous yet damaged George you will remember, not least because of the outrageously self-destructive and self-pitying way he finishes the story.