A small-town romantic rivalry boils over into humiliation and fury, set to one of the year's most disquieting and memorable scores
A grim and flinty study of a marriage in crisis, The Killing of Two Lovers is not quite the film you expect from its title and opening shot of a man pointing a revolver at a sleeping couple in bed. What initially looks like a gritty revenge thriller fuelled by male rage is actually something much smaller and sadder, though no less gripping: the story of a man who tries desperately to hold himself together after agreeing to an open marriage.
This man is David (Clayne Crawford), a local handyman for the residents of his minuscule flyover state town who is losing his grip on his family as his ambitious lawyer wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) starts to move on with arrogant boyfriend Derek (Chris Coy). David and Nikki have agreed to stay amicable for the sake of their four kids, in the hope that their “seeing other people” arrangement (which David is making no use of), ends up as a blip, though it’s a scheme that the couple, and their eldest daughter, are clearly not entirely confident in.
Crawford gives an exquisite lead performance, the diplomacy that David tries to conduct himself with around Nikki breaking down into wordless rage once he’s on his own, an unbearable sense of humiliation underpinning everything he does. Writer-director Robert Machoian’s analysis of wounded masculinity here is merciless, constantly reducing David’s dignity as he moves out of his marital home to live with his dad. Even his attempts to salvage some manhood in an ominous outdoor shooting gallery are thwarted, hitting the (rather large) target only once in 12 shots.
The end result is that you both pity David and fear him, his damaged pride making him dangerous, though Machoian makes sure he isn’t a one-note “Angry Man.” His kids (played by Machoian’s real-life children and proving natural actors) adore him, and Nikki clearly still wants to love him, a strange and often unexplored emotion that Moafi plays incredibly well. This is a complex and mature look at how relationships can disintegrate and reshape themselves, one that avoids easy answers or obvious sources of catharsis in favour of arguments that are impossible to resolve and occasional small moments of grace.
Though the landscapes surrounding David’s town are monumental, there’s no freedom to be found in the plains or mountains. A claustrophobic aspect ratio and omnipresent wintry fog restrict the horizons for both the audience and the characters, Machoian shining a light at a forgotten America, where grandly enormous houses sit in barren isolation, their intimidating size meaningless when their surroundings are so relentlessly bleak.
This bleakness is compounded by a disquieting score that sounds like it was recorded at an armoury. It’s full of percussive thuds and metallic screeches that could easily be mistaken for gunfire, a technique that disorients you while keeping you constantly flashing back to that opening revolver shot.
The Killing of Two Lovers is Machoian’s fourth feature behind the camera, but the first film he’s directed solo. If the shift caused any jitters, it’s not evident on screen. This is an astoundingly assured film, tightly wound but ready to explode at any minute, capped off by a finale that is at once both ambiguous and imparting a clear moral judgement. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s one this weighty yet dynamic story more than earns.
The Killing of Two Lovers is now showing in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema.Where to watch