Review: ‘The Killing of Two Lovers’ is a powerful drama about a family on the brink
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The title of “The Killing of Two Lovers” sounds at first like a spoiler, if it’s possible to spoil something that happens, or almost happens, in the very first scene. The lovers, Niki (Sepideh Moafi) and Derek (Chris Coy), are asleep in bed on a cold morning. Their putative killer, Niki’s husband, David (Clayne Crawford), looms over them (and us) with a loaded pistol. He takes aim but doesn’t shoot — there are children in the house — and instead takes off, fleeing in silent anguish from a situation that he knows no violence could solve.
The possibility of violence nonetheless hangs over every stark frame of “The Killing of Two Lovers,” a dramatically spare, formally arresting story about a marriage that’s fallen on rough times. That title — whose menace lingers like a bad dream even after the immediate threat has been neutralized — suggests an inexorable end, a point of no return. But the movie itself, a sterling piece of American realism written and directed by Robert Machoian, is somehow both taut and open-ended. Its swift 84-minute running time and nearly square-shaped images may initially suggest a sense of entrapment, but nothing about these characters and their spare, bruisingly sad story feels obvious or overdetermined.
That story begins, with minimal exposition, during a period of trial and transition. Niki and David have agreed to spend some time apart, though they clearly have different ideas about what that means. “Apart” may even be overstating things; David has moved in with his ailing dad (Bruce Graham) barely half a mile down the road. (The movie was shot against the flat, wide-open landscapes of Kanosh, Utah, a town of a few hundred people.) While Niki seems to have wasted little time moving on, David still holds out hope for a reconciliation. Their sullen teenage daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzuto), and three raucous younger sons (played by real-life brothers Arri, Ezra and Jonah Graham) are understandably on his side.
And so, one might conclude at first, is the movie. From the very first shot — a closeup of David’s face so extreme you can see every hair, pore and wrinkle — you might be tempted to pigeonhole “The Killing of Two Lovers” as a brooding study of incipient rage, of the capacity for harm that underlies the human psyche in general and the rural American white male psyche in particular. Rather than tracing a clear arc, the story coalesces from scraps of routine — as David picks up and drops off the kids, or heads out in his truck to do an odd job — and is nudged this way and that by his wildly shifting moods. And Crawford, his flinty good looks partly hidden by a dark beard and coarsened by the cold Utah air, all but buries David in an inchoate weave of jealousy, confusion and fury.
But within that psychological morass there are also pockets of affection, warmth and humor. David comes to life around his kids, especially his sons, whom he delights and torments with a series of regulation dad jokes. His relationship with Jess is tougher but nonetheless founded on a core of mutual understanding. His kids are clearly helping keep David sane, which, the movie reminds him and us, shouldn’t be their job. But in his rapport with them, as well as his sweetly clumsy attempts to rekindle things with his wife, he projects a sensitivity that feels no less genuine for having perhaps been mustered too late.
Much as he may prioritize David’s perspective, Machoian is not in a hurry to grant him the moral high ground. Niki, though given less screen time, asserts herself even in her absence; she’s clearly the one who set the separation in motion and is strict about enforcing its terms. The reasons for her dissatisfaction are more hinted at than articulated, but you can read them from snatches of dialogue and other details: financial woes, career sacrifices, a relationship that started too early (in high school) and has struggled to bear the weight of the many years and children since. You can also read a lot from the tension in Moafi’s performance: While Niki addresses Derek in the same gently reassuring voice she uses with the kids, her wary, impatient body language expresses years of accrued frustration.
The movie keeps Niki offscreen at first before gently nudging her into the frame, allowing her steadiness and common sense to offset David’s anxiety and occasional aggression. But while David can be driven by reckless impulse — there’s an unnerving scene in which he quietly stalks Derek (or is it the other way around?) at the local convenience store — it’s telling that he spends most of his time contemplating, and often abandoning, his course of action. Fast-moving and slow-burning by turns, “The Killing of Two Lovers” suggests that real life — and real drama — so often unfold in the in-between moments, in the anticipation rather than the actual execution of the next move.
It’s a case that Machoian and his cinematographer, Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, place into stark aesthetic terms, composing almost every scene as a sustained single take that allows tension to build (and sometimes dissipate) organically. It’s a naturalistic style that nonetheless veers between visual and emotional extremes: Those tight closeups of David are countered by images that situate him against the landscape, its wintry beauty echoing his own inner desolation. And while David can scarcely find the words for his anger when it erupts, Peter Albrechtson’s musique concrète-inspired soundscape rushes into the breach, assembling scraps of everyday noise into a mosaic of diegetic menace. Perhaps the most prominent of these sounds is the repeated opening and shutting of a car door, a jolting effect that suggests both the tedium of the quotidian and the frustration of a life lived away from his family.
Family, as it happens, provides a crucial framework for this story and its telling. This is the first solo feature directed by Machoian, a photography professor who’s been making films for more than a decade, some of them with his own family members. (The filmmaker’s full name is Robert Machoian Graham; his sons play David’s sons, and his father plays David’s father.) There’s a beguiling intimacy to the way he shoots scenes of family togetherness, especially when the four kids pile with their dad into the front of his truck and head to the park, in a scene as sweet and amusing as it is moderately harrowing.
The considerable power of this movie stems from those emotional contradictions and from Machoian’s refusal to reconcile them easily or predictably. In the final moments he orchestrates two swift, startling reversals, releasing the story’s accumulated tension in ways that no one onscreen and few in the audience could expect. You’re likely to leave “The Killing of Two Lovers” feeling wrung out, moved and faintly disturbed by its conclusions. Is this a requiem for the American family, or a hymn to its battered resilience? The most disquieting possibility is that it might be both. The best and worst human impulses seldom resolve but are instead left to fight each other to a draw.
‘The Killing of Two Lovers’
Rated: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts May 14, the Landmark, West Los Angeles; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also available on VOD
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