The Killing of Two Lovers opens with an intensity that it barely attempts to replicate across its tight runtime, as we are thrust into a dynamic that proceeds to unfold in ways the first few shots may not suggest.
It is hard to discern whether this ends up being a good thing, and the film is left feeling somewhat incomplete because of it. But while The Killing of Two Lovers may not feel greater than the sum of its parts, its parts are often compelling and sometimes excellent.
Director Robert Machoian thrusts us into a faltering marriage, as David (Clayne Crawford) attempts to mend the seams with his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), while also clinging onto a healthy relationship with his four children. The film is small on plot and big on characters, painting an aching picture of a father who is doing his near-best to reconcile his family. Chris Coy’s Derek does his best to get in the way of this as Nikki’s new partner, but Machoian gives him very few scenes to stake his claim as the film’s antagonist.
At its best, The Killing of Two Lovers is an engrossing relationship drama that burns with the tension of a cold-hearted thriller. At its worst, Machoian’s stylistic decisions and directorial choices trap the film in a wasteland of its own making. The plot itself is set against the mountainous isolation of Utah, and its barren bitterness is often welcome and narratively lyrical. For large parts of the film its coldness feels honest, as if translating the alienating turmoil of a broken relationship.
And this can only work if a film has a convincing performance at its centre. Luckily, Crawford is an absolute powerhouse. He is both endearing and pitiful as David, the warm but ultimately broken father. He plays every beat with a lived conviction of how his character operates, and the results are insanely watchable. Having to anchor both the heights of dramatic tension and a film’s moments of levity takes a serious degree of command, and Crawford manages to captivate from the first shot to the last.
It is frustrating, then, when it feels like that performance is sold short. The film’s cold sting is effective until the narrative begins to feel distant; until the work becomes stony. Machoian’s commitment to his austere style sacrifices shades of sympathy with his characters, which by the third act feel needed. And that is because there is such a warmth to Crawford’s performance—the scenes with his children radiate an affectionate energy that feels uncomfortably at odds with the atmospheric brooding of Machoian’s directing. The climax is tense, but its catharsis is stunted by the bitterness of those previous two acts.
And yet, Machoian has an admirable grasp on the style to which he pledges The Killing of Two Lovers. Every shot is framed in 4:3 and splattered with grain, and the camera lingers wide in most scenes, trapping the characters in the frame. The sound design is peculiar but tense, layering dissonant mechanical sounds over scenes of Crawford solemnly moping like a reincarnated Casey Affleck. The whole film is effectively tuned toward feeling claustrophobic and uneasy.
There is a particular scene between David and Nikki shared entirely in David’s car (as much of the film is), as the two try to rekindle some romance. It’s a scene of intimate dialogue, but Machoian shoots the actors in separate close-up shots, so it almost feels as if the lines are meant for us. It is the film’s most empathetic sequence, as Machoian opts to put us in-between the exchange, and in that moment we understand their fractured relationship better than any other moment. It breathes air into the film, and a little more of this would have helped loosen a film that nearly becomes stiff. But there is so much to admire about The Killing of Two Lovers, and it will certainly be remembered for the many things it gets right.
The Killing of Two Lovers is largely good, and only invites criticism because it could have been truly great. Crawford’s riveting performance and Machoian’s confident direction cement the film as a memorably brutal drama.
The Killing of Two Lovers will be released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 4 June.
Words by Ben Faulkner
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