It only takes a matter of seconds for “The Killing of Two Lovers” to justify its title. David (Clayne Crawford), bearded and disheveled, hovers in a bedroom with a pistol in his hands as his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) sleeps alongside her new boyfriend Derek (Chris Coy). It’s a riveting start to writer-director Robert Machoian’s taut and absorbing portrait of marital discord, which reinvents the clichés of the dysfunctional family drama by making them thrilling to watch.
Needless to say, David’s not quite ready to pull the trigger, and the camera chases him out the door as he catches his breath. Caught between caring for his ailing father (Bruce Graham) and begging Nikki to let him back into her life, he’s either hit rock bottom or floating just above it. The movie huddles alongside him as he attempts to fix a broken household well beyond repair.
Moments after the breakneck suspense of its opening passage, David’s already made another weak attempt at winning back Nikki’s affections as he picks up their two kids (Machoian’s actual children, Arri and Ezra Graham) and fights to keep it together. Crawford, previously best known as a TV actor on “Rectify” and “Lethal Weapon,” inhabits the role like a tea kettle trying to hold the steam in, his eyes pulsating beneath a hairy mass of fury and denial. Machoian sticks with that subjectivity, utilizing ambitious long takes and an ominous, low-rumbling sound design that gives literal form to a fragile mind about to crack at any moment. Hold on tight!
“The Killing of Two Lovers” moves at such an involving pace that it’s easy to get lost in the tension of the moment and forget we’ve seen countless iterations of this scenario before. Unlike “Kramer vs. Kramer” or “Marriage Story,” though, the situation has already turned bleak from the start. While David attempts to remain a sturdy father figure to his kids, older daughter Jesse struggles to comprehend her parents’ decision and demands her dad work things out, not realizing that she’s basically cranking up the anger festering inside his head. Nikki, a former lawyer eager to rekindle her professional ambitions, has already moved on; David, a failed musician, remains frozen in the life he once had — and the denial compels him to preserve it at all costs.
Having failed to take the nuclear option in the first scene, David launches into a more uncertain stalker stage of his obsession, following Derek around in a grimy pickup truck. Thankfully, Machoian’s script stops short of suggesting that his subject has devolved into a pure psychopath, and gradually explores the tenuous bond he retains with his wife, suggesting that some measure of an emotional connection continues to fester between them. In one remarkable scene, David performs an acoustic song for her as the camera sits on his face, and for a brief moment, his fantasy of reconciliation seems like a viable path. Then comes the brutal reality check, and the time bomb keeps ticking away, right up to a jarring final confrontation that brings this gripping dynamic full circle.
“The Killing of Two Lovers” was shot in the minuscule town of Kanosh, Utah (pop. 699, apparently), and the small-town aesthetic adds a tremendous claustrophobia to David’s conundrum. Veering from the tiny residential area to drab convenience stores and empty lots, the backdrop often takes on a poetic sense of despair. As he roams through vacant streets surrounded by small homes that all bleed together, it’s clear that David has become unstuck from the tiny world that defined his existence, and all he can do is drift.
It’s become something of a cliché in recent years for filmmakers to resurrect the square-shaped 4:3 aspect ratio to add a heightened quality to dramatic material, but cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez stuffs an incredible degree of tension into each frame, lending the impression that David could burst out of it at any moment. (The screen opens up at a key moment when you least expect it.) As a renewed saga of a deadbeat dad trying to piece his shattered life together, the movie doesn’t always build on each preceding so much as it maintains a single unnerving tone throughout. Unlike, say, Joshua and Benny Safdie’s “Daddy Longlegs,” David isn’t a total agent of chaos; he’s just a fuck up who may or may not have lost his mind before the first scene.
And by its last, “The Killing of Two Lovers” leaves us with an open question: What did we just watch? Is David an irredeemable monster or a lost soul who deserves his second chance? Working through that ambiguity, “The Killing of Two Lovers” makes it clear that nothing is so simple. Fighting through David’s confusion, “The Killing of Two Lovers” makes it possible to empathize with his situation even as it leaves open the possibility that he might be a lost cause. It’s a rare kind of movie magic to wrestle through this mess of a man and realize that the mysterious nature of his fate proves the only natural outcome, because no simple ending can do justice to a life bereft of easy answers.
“The Killing of Two Lovers” opens in theaters and on demand May 14, 2021.