by Pauline Kael
There wasn’t a single scene in the English director Alan Parker’s first three feature films (Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Fame) that I thought rang true; there isn’t a scene in his new picture Shoot the Moon, that I think rings false. I’m a little afraid to say how good I think Shoot the Moon is—I don’t want to set up the kind of bad magic that might cause people to say they were led to expect so much that they were disappointed. But I’m even more afraid that I can’t come near doing this picture justice. The characters in Shoot the Moon, which was written by Bo Goldman, aren’t taken from the movies, or from books, either. They’re torn—bleeding—from inside Bo Goldman and Alan Parker and the two stars, Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, and others in the cast.
Diane Keaton is Faith Dunlap, and Finney is her husband, George. The Dunlaps have been married about fifteen years and have four school-age daughters. George is a nonfiction writer who’s had a rough time, whipping up free-lance articles to meet the bills. But now he has become reputable, and they are doing better financially and are comfortable in their big old house in Marin County, across the bay from San Francisco. Their relationship has been poisoned, though. Faith knows all George’s weaknesses and failures, and her knowledge eats away at his confidence. “You always remember the wrong things,” he tells her. So he’s having an affair, and feeling so rotten about it that he sobs when he’s alone. And though he tries to keep the affair secret from Faith, she learns about it and is devastated. She can’t look at him; her anxious eyes turn away. When he says, “You look really pretty,” she can’t stop herself from saying, “You seem surprised.” Her angry misery is almost like a debauch; it makes her appear sodden. When she’s with him, her face sinks—it’s the dead weight of her sense of loss. At a book-awards ceremony in San Francisco, she overhears photographers who have taken pictures of the two of them decide on the caption “George Dunlap and friend.” She blurts out, “I’m not his friend. I’m his wife.” The movie begins on the eve of the day when she drives him out of the house, and it covers the next months of separation.
Their oldest daughter, the thirteen-year-old Sherry (Dana Hill), who has known about her father’s adultery, feels that it’s treachery to her and to the whole family. She can’t forgive him, and after he has moved out she refuses to talk with him or to go along when he drives the younger girls to school or takes them away for the weekend. She shuts him out of her life, and the bond he feels with her is so strong that this is even more intolerable to him than being shut out of his own home. The other girls are sunshiny, but Sherry’s face goes slack, and she looks burned out, like her mother. Faith, though, can look young and animated when she isn’t with George; the years just fall away when she smiles her ravishing, clown’s smile. Sherry’s mood doesn’t lift. She has had the most love and the most pain. She’s the embodiment of what went wrong between her parents, and she’s always there.
The movie isn’t labored, like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s essentially the story of the husband and father as supplicant for re-admission into the family, but it touches on things without seeming to address them directly. It’s like a person with many sides. There are gags that pay off and keep on paying off—they turn into motifs. And sometimes the lines of dialogue that seem funny or ironic go through a variation or two and become lyrical. Parker has caught the essence of Bo Goldman’s melancholic tone in the theme music—“Don’t Blame Me,’’ picked out on the piano with one finger. That, too, is turned into a joke and then has its original tone restored. There’s an amazingly risky sequence, set in the restaurant of a Northern California inn, where George and Faith meet by chance and have a rowdy spat that’s played off against screwball-comedy circumstances, with an elderly, quavering-voiced woman singer using the theme song in a hopeless attempt to drown out their shouting, and a man at the next table taking exception to their loud use of vulgar language. Many of the scenes have details that touch off very personal feelings: George pulling down the note pad that hangs on a string in his car to write excuses for his children’s being late to school; one of the girls leaning toward The Wizard of Oz on the TV and chanting the Wicked Witch’s threats slightly ahead of Margaret Hamilton. In this movie, the people have resources; they try things out. They take a step forward, and then maybe they move back. The tension that George feels with Faith is gone when he’s with his perfectly shallow new lover (Karen Allen). She tells him, “You’re my friend, George. I like you. I love you. And if you don’t come through I’ll find somebody else.” She means it; she’s adaptable.
The kids had a real presence in Bo Goldman’s script for Melvin and Howard (his other screen credits include co-writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Rose), and they have an even stronger one here. The family has been close in the loose, Northern California manner; the kids talk as freely as the parents do, and they’re at ease, the way the house is. The girls have moments of imitating their high-and-mighty and short-tempered parents and then dissolving in giggles; they bitch each other heartlessly and then do something in perfect unison. When they squeal and carry on as they watch their parents on TV at the book awards, you know that this movie was written from observation and directed that way, too. The interaction of the four girls with each other and with their parents and the interaction of the girls with each parent’s new lover are part of the substance of the movie. Alan Parker has four children, and Bo Goldman is the father of six; that may be the bond that made Shoot the Moon possible. This movie isn’t just about marriage; it’s about the family that is created, and how that whole family reacts to the knotted, disintegrating relationship of the parents. The children’s world—a world of fragmented, displaced understanding—overlaps that of the adults and comments on it. And the texture of domestic scenes with bright, sensitive kids squabbling and testing keeps the film in balance. Bo Goldman has too much theatrical richness in his writing to make an audience suffer. He lets people be the entertainers that they are in life.
The four girls are inventive—they slip in and out of roles. Instinctive vaudevillians, they’re always onstage. And whenever they’re around, the movie is a variety show. Faith is sensitive to the comedy and drama of her family—she’s constantly soothing and adjusting, and helping the seven-year-old get equal billing. When the morose, separated George takes the three younger kids out, he works so conscientiously to keep them happy that he sounds completely false; they feel his strain and try to humor him. When they’re with him and his new lady, they try to play their parts, to keep tension to a minimum. (The comedy here is in how transparently they assume these roles.) And the sign of Sherry’s confusion is her insistence on bringing up just the things nobody wants to have brought up, on forcing her parents into bad scenes. Yet she is never a pain. She keeps the atmosphere raw, and rawness is what makes this movie get to you.
Albert Finney, who has been sleepwalking in his recent movie appearances, is awake and trying out his reflexes. There’s a profound difference in Finney; this is not a performance one might have expected from him. He uses all the impacted sloth and rage that show in the sag and weight of his big, handsome face. Locked out, George looks stunned, as if he’d been hit over the head—you can see the emotions fermenting in him that he himself isn’t conscious of. He doesn’t know that he’s going to explode when he does. In a sequence in which he goes to the house doggedly determined to give Sherry her birthday present, Faith tells him that Sherry won’t see him, and bolts the door. All he knows is that he has to get to Sherry. He kicks at the door and then he suddenly smashes a glass panel, sticks his arm in and pushes the bolt, rushes upstairs, grabs the child and spanks her, brutally. Sherry reaches for a scissors and holds him off with it. And then they huddle together, sobbing, and he, unforgiven, caresses her, pleading for a chance. It’s one of the saddest, greatest love scenes ever put on film; you feel you’ve lived it, or lived something so close to its emotional core that you know everything each of them is going through. When George leaves, in disgrace, he trudges out carrying the present; then, a few paces away from the lighted house, he suddenly breaks into a run. Both as a character and as an actor, Finney seems startled and appalled by what has been let loose in him. His scenes seem to be happening right in front of us—you watch him with the apprehensiveness that you might feel at a live telecast. Keaton is Faith, but Finney seems both George and Finney. He’s an actor possessed by a great role—pulled into it kicking and screaming, by his own guts.
Diane Keaton may be a star without vanity: she’s so completely challenged by the role of Faith that all she cares about is getting the character right. Faith’s eyes are squinched and you can see the crow’s-feet; at times her face is bloated from depression, and she has the crumbling-plaster look of an old woman. Keaton is tall but not big, yet she gives you a feeling of size—of being planted and rooted, while George is buffeted about. He doesn’t know how he was cast loose or what he’s doing at sea. He has done it to himself and he can’t figure out why. Throughout the movie, he’s looking for a dock—he’s reaching out to his wife. But Faith is unyielding; she doesn’t want more pain. Very few young American movie actresses have the strength and the instinct for the toughest dramatic roles—intelligent, sophisticated heroines. Jane Fonda did, around the time that she appeared in Klute and They Shoot Horses, Don Y They?, but that was more than ten years ago. There hasn’t been anybody else until now. Diane Keaton acts on a different plane from that of her previous film roles; she brings the character a full measure of dread and awareness, and does it in a special, intuitive way that’s right for screen acting. Nothing looks rehearsed, yet it’s all fully created. She has a scene alone in the house in the early days of the separation—soaking in a tub, smoking a joint and singing faintly (a Beatles song—“If I Fell”), getting out to answer the phone, and then just standing listlessly, wiping off her smudged eyeliner. It’s worthy of a Jean Rhys heroine; her eyes are infinitely sad—she’s cracking, and you can sense the cold, windy remnants of passion that are cracking her. But this scene is a lull between wars. Faith is rarely alone: she still has her life around her—she has the kids and the house. (And that house, with its serene view, is itself a presence; it’s upsetting when George smashes the door.) Faith can ignore George and start having a good time with a rather simple new fellow (Peter Weller)—a workman-contractor who puts up a tennis court for her in the grove next to the house. But George can’t ignore her, because she’s still holding so much of his life—the kids, the house, all the instinctive adaptations they had made to each other. George can’t take anything for granted anymore.
Alan Parker and Bo Goldman circle around the characters, observing their moves and gestures toward each other; the movie is about the processes of adaptation. That’s why that sequence at the inn is so funny and satisfying. In Melvin and Howard, it was a great moment when Howard Hughes got past his contempt for Melvin and they spoke together about the smell of the desert after the rain, and finally were friends and so close that they didn’t need to talk. In Shoot the Moon, the only time that George and Faith reconnect is in their drunken dinner at the inn when they start eating out of the same plate and yell at each other, and then they wind up in bed together. What a relief it is for George—for a few hours he can live on instinct again.
This film may recall Irvin Kershner’s 1970 Loving—a story of separating that had a high level of manic pain. But the wife in that (played with great delicacy by Eva Marie Saint) wasn’t the powerhouse that Faith is. Faith doesn’t back down when she and George fight, and her angry silence is much stronger than George’s desperate chatter—Faith has no guilt. Shoot the Moon may also call up memories of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in the theatre or on the screen. But in that, too, the husband held the power. George is powerless. He has an extraordinary reconciliation scene with Sherry: she runs away from her mother on the night of a party celebrating the completion of the tennis court, and comes to find him, and they talk together on a pier, sitting quietly, with George’s brown cardigan pulled around them both to keep out the chill. But when he takes Sherry back home and sees Faith and her lover and their guests and the strings of festive lights on the tennis court, he’s filled with a balky, despairing rage—you can almost see his blood vessels engorging. He has been stripped of too much of his life; throughout the film he has been losing emotional control, breaking down—he can’t adapt.
Alan Parker doesn’t try to rush things or to prove himself. His energy doesn’t come all the way through to the surface, as an American director’s might; it stays under, and it’s evenly distributed. George becomes resentful of any sign of change in Faith’s or the children’s lives, but the film doesn’t overemote—it looks at him and at the others very steadily. It’s a measure of the quality of Parker’s direction that no one in the picture asks for the audience’s sympathy. When George is self-pitying, as he is in a sequence of visiting the ruins of Jack London’s house and telling his kids what a great author London was and how someone set fire to the house the night before the great author was supposed to move in, his maudlin tone is played off against the girls’ questions and remarks about London’s marriages and children; they all project their own feelings onto the Londons—it becomes a comedy routine. This is an unapologetically grown-up movie. Though Alan Parker doesn’t do anything innovative in technique, it’s a modern movie in terms of its consciousness, and in its assumption that the members of the movie audience, like the readers of modern fiction, share in that consciousness.
Probably Parker couldn’t have brought it all off with such subtlety and discretion if he hadn’t had the collaborators who were with him on his other features—the producer Alan Marshall, the cinematographer Michael Seresin, the production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, and the editor Gerry Hambling. They must have helped free him to devote his full attention to the cast. He directs the actors superbly. Diane Keaton and Albert Finney give the kind of performances that in the theatre become legendary, and, in its smaller dimensions, Dana Hill’s Sherry is perhaps equally fine. And the three child actresses—Viveka Davis as Jill, Tracey Gold as Marianne, and Tina Yothers as Molly—are a convincing group of sisters and the very best kind of running gag. Even George Murdock, who has a single appearance as Faith’s dying father, is remarkable—the old man has a clear head. Parker has created a completely believable family and environment (the picture was all shot on location), and he has done it in the wet days and foggy light of a country and a culture that aren’t his own. And he has given us a movie about separating that is perhaps the most revealing American movie of the era. Shoot the Moon assumes the intelligence of the audience, as Bonnie and Clyde did; it assumes that people don’t need to have basic emotions labelled or explained to them. When you see Shoot the Moon, you recognize yourself in it. If there’s a key to the movie, it’s in one simple dialogue exchange. It comes at the inn when George and Faith are in bed, lying next to each other after making love. She talks about how much she used to love him and then:
Faith: Just now for an instant there—I don’t know—you made me laugh, George—you were kind.
George: You’re right, I’m not kind anymore.
Faith: Me neither.
George: You’re kind to strangers.
Faith: Strangers are easy.
The New Yorker, January 18, 1982