Death lurks just out of view throughout The Killing of Two Lovers. Its title feels like a promise, whether something grim will happen is not the question. No, the question is, when? In the opening scene, David (Clayne Crawford) looms over a sleeping woman — his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), we later discover — six-shooter in hand, on the verge of pulling the trigger. A disruption stops him, but the intent was there. With that knowledge comes a lingering sense of danger that this indie drama could turn into a cinematic reimaging of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Song of Joy’ at any moment.
The groundwork for a rural noir is laid — the visual sensibilities of the film certainly point to that. Set in an unnamed Utah town, the characters appear small next to their mountain state surroundings. They look trapped, with the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio providing a constrictive visual quality. Cinematographer Ignacio Jiménez shoots with a washed-out palette, and fills the frame with negative space, adding to the noirish tone. The cinematography creates isolation and makes the film’s threat of violence Damoclean.
But that is not the story writer-director Robert Machoian ultimately tells. As details about David and Nikki’s relationship are disclosed, the film shifts gears, and any notions of noir fall away. What emerges is a divorce drama with rural gothic inflections.
We learn that David and Nikki were high school sweethearts. They married young and had four children: three sons (Arri, Ezra, and Jonah Graham) and a daughter, Jesse (Avery Pizzuto). Now, after a decade of marriage, fissures in the relationship have set in. Nikki is smarter than David, but in their small-town setting, his manual labor skills made him the breadwinner, so she stayed home to look after the children. These were not issues for the couple at the time, but eventually led to discontent, and at Nikki’s behest they have gone on break — a cause of strife for David who stills loves her deeply and wishes for the family to be brought back together.
On that premise alone, comparison to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is inevitable. They are, however, two different beasts entirely. Where Baumbach was more interested in a post-mortem of a now-dead marriage, Machoian appears set on investigating how marriages atrophy, and whether their disintegration, once commenced, is inevitable. But his script fails to do much with the ideas it ostensibly wants to play with.
A ten-minute long scene following David and Nikki’s weekly date night (an addendum that he added to Nikki’s break proposal) hints that these may be people whose aspirations have diverged in such a way that they’re left with fundamentally opposed ideas about their future. The scene, smartly written, lays out these ideas with tact. Nikki doesn’t so much confront David with her feelings as much as accidentally let them slip out. It’s a delicate moment in the script, and one of the few that are nuanced. It speaks to Nikki’s confliction and is evidence that she still has feelings for David.
Unfortunately, this scene is the exception, not the rule. While Machoian approaches Nikki with compassion, rarely does her interiority become fully realized the way David’s is.
David’s interactions with his children are, by and large, more shaded; and his dynamic with Jesse is particularly complex. Pizzuto is a stand-out, managing to make a somewhat typical teenaged character feel authentic. Her talent for burying emotion behind sarcasm, only until an outburst, is especially noteworthy.
The real issue with the film is the opening scene: David’s introduction as a would-be murderer. The sound design works to keep tension high, reminding us that any moment could turn violent. In lieu of a traditional score, sound designer Peter Albrechtsen outfits David’s moments of high emotion with a mix of metallic sounds — a gun being cocked, the clangs of empty barrels, and slamming car doors. The sounds reinforce that David is on tenterhooks, but while they fit the dark opening, it feels at odds with Machoian’s humanistic writing.
Crawford also seems to be on the wrong page: playing David as a man who’s lost control of an emotionally extreme situation and is trying to hide the decline of his mental state. The performance is solid, and Crawford succeeds in lending David some much-needed complexity, but it feels out of sync with the film Machoian was trying to make because Crawford is playing one version of David in the opening scene, and after that, Machoian writes a different character entirely.
The script is ultimately sympathetic toward David, and his would-be moment of violence is never properly addressed. This then raises the question, what is Machoian trying to say with David? Is the statement that any husband can be driven to murder by a looming divorce? Because in that case the onus would be on Nikki not to divorce him in order to preserve her life, and that oozes a mentality of victim-blaming. Alternatively, David’s near-homicidal response is meant to be seen as anomalous. But then what is the point of spotlighting and sympathising with a figure like him?
David isn’t satisfyingly interrogated, which undermines any salient point about marriage the film seeks to communicate. His violent tendencies are treated as little more than a tool for upping the tension, reminding us of that initial promise of death, and compensating for narrative lulls. That dread is a functional storytelling tool, but it’s also a reality for many people and deserves to be treated with more than flippancy.
The Killing of Two Lovers is Machoian’s first outing as a solo director and shows promise. It’s ideal to not conflate issues with David with the rest of the film holistically — many of the technical elements are marvelous — but his treatment of David and the surrounding characters feels careless.