The Killing of Two Lovers
A hit at Sundance 2020, this intimately observed and astonishingly acted drama focuses on a family struggling with the repercussions of a fraying marriage.
September 16, 2021
If you stare at something long enough, you don't just see the obvious. You notice everything, from the details that fail to immediately catch your attention to the way things can change instantly right in front of your eyes. The Killing of Two Lovers is all about this idea, and on two fronts. It puts a fractured marriage before its lens, ensuring its struggles and troubles can't be ignored. It also takes its time to peer at its protagonist, the separated-and-unhappy-about-it David (Clayne Crawford, Rectify), and at all that his new life now entails. In a sparse small town — with the film shot in Kanosh, Utah — its central figure attempts to adjust to living with his ailing widower father (Bruce Graham, Forty Years From Yesterday). His wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi, The L Word: Generation Q) remains in their home with their four children, as they've agreed while they take a break to work through their problems. David isn't coping, though, a fact that's apparent long before his teenage daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto, We Fall Down) gets angry because she thinks he isn't fighting hard enough to save their family. He's trying, but as Crawford conveys in a brooding but nervy performance — and as writer/director/editor Robert Machoian (When She Runs) and cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez (Immanence) can't stop looking at in lengthy and patient takes — he can't quite adapt to the idea of losing everything he knows.
Not just wed young, but welcoming Jess into their lives when they were basically kids themselves, David and Niki have spent their entire adulthood together so far — and as parents. They've agreed that they can date other people during their time apart, which Niki is doing; however, David just wants what he's always had. Indeed, The Killing of Two Lovers opens with him appearing poised to put that title into effect. He even has a gun, in fact. But nothing is that simple here, or for everyone in the movie's frames, or for anyone. From that very first moment, with the camera lingering on him wrestling with a big decision and radiating pain, anger and uncertainty, this is a feature that's determined to keep staring while its characters grapple with complexities both intimate and commonplace. David can't handle that Niki has started seeing Derek (Chris Coy, The Deuce), who works in the same building. He can't face the fact that she's been promoted at work, which brings more opportunities for her to be independent. And he certainly can't abide by only spending time with his beloved kids — including pre-teen boys Alex, Theo and Bug (Arri, Ezra and Jonah Graham, God Bless the Child) in agreed slots, instead of being there for their every moment.
The Killing of Two Lovers watches David rage and fray. It sees him try to be the cool part-time dad, buying his brood toy rockets to send soaring into the sky in the local park, and waking up his sons in the middle of the night to show them he's taken their comedy advice. The film observes as he weathers Jess' anger, fear and disappointment, too, and as he tries to make his date nights with Niki the kind of evening that'll get them back together. It notices his self-centred wish to keep everything frozen in time, his stubbornness to accept any other fate, and his posturing with the unpleasant, jerk-ish Derek. Crucially, though, this is a movie about domestic disharmony that witnesses as much as it can, and lets as broad a spectrum of its protagonist's life as possible tell its tale. The Killing of Two Lovers ensures that Niki's predicament is just as complicated as well. This isn't just a movie that explores what happens when a man could lose everything that's made him who he is; it's also a portrait of a woman torn between a past she knows and a future that's on her own terms. And, it definitely isn't a film that condones David's actions, or offers any neat or predictable answers, explanations or options, but rather it's a snapshot of just how tangled and elaborate life always becomes.
There's an element of Scenes From a Marriage at play here, although The Killing of Two Lovers pre-dates the new remake — and so much of the feeling in this gorgeously shot movie comes from its imagery. When it's hard to look away from such rich and enticing visuals, it's impossible not to spot and soak in everything they depict. Each frame is postcard-perfect, not that those pieces of cardboard ever capture such everyday sights, but wide vistas and the snowy mountains hovering in the background are just the beginning. With its long takes, The Killing of Two Lovers forces its audience to glean the naturalistic lighting that never casts David and Niki's hometown in either a warm glow or grim glower. Repeated images of David alone, especially in his car, also leave a firm impression of a man moving and solo. And, presenting most of its frames in the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film also possesses an astonishing and telling sense of space. Nothing is bluntly boxed in here, but everyone is trying to roam within the claustrophobic patch of turf they've scratched out. And, within the feature's square-shaped visuals springs an added fountain of intimacy that cuts to the heart of such close relationships, such as when David and the kids all pile into his truck, or during one of David and Niki's car-bound dates.
Of course, without the right actors inhabiting those shots — and the right performances emanating from them — Machoian's stunning sights would ring hollow. Crawford is as soulful as the film's cinematography, and as jumpy as the metallic-sounding audioscape that echoes during its 84-minute running time. He's both masterful and devastating as he, like the overall feature itself, tussles and jostles with David's internal and external chaos. His is a raw and invested portrayal, so it comes as little surprise that he's one of the picture's executive producers. Crawford is aided by spot-on work by his co-stars, though; by smartly penned, stirringly insightful dialogue that most scripts wish they could muster, too; and by a piercing use of silence to let everything sink in. The devil isn't in the detail here — the minutiae is the entire movie, and what an unflinching, evocative and heady vision of yearning and emotionally churning it is.