Robert Machoian’s debut feature, The Killing of Two Lovers, has a tough psychological knot braided right through its center, one that it doesn’t quite satisfyingly untangle — not that it exactly means to. The movie opens with a man named David (Clayne Crawford) standing over his sleeping wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), and the man she’s been seeing, Derek (Chris Coy), with a gun in hand, shaking indecisively as he points it at one, then the other. No, this isn’t the killing referenced by the title, or at least not in a neat way. It’s better read as a nod to Nikki and David’s marriage — now in a stage of trial separation, hence the (sanctioned and fair game) extramarital beau in Nikki’s bed.
Obviously, though, you learn a lot about David from the fact that he would even dare. That he would not only think such a thought, but grab a gun, leave his own house (which, because he’s moved back in with his father, is only just down the street) and sneak in, brandishing that weapon toward his wife as, elsewhere in the house, their four children are sleeping. That he would come so close to doing the unforgivable. This is enough of an indictment, probably, for most people. And it’s an immediate glint of insight into at least one aspect of David’s character: the despair of his family’s future that would seem to drive him to this level of violence.
Nothing that happens next — not the sneaking back out, nor the running back to his own home to seethe in private, with the camera tracking and bouncing along behind him, and most certainly not David’s choice to haul tail back to his old house to wait for the man sleeping beside his wife: none of it is enough to erase the terror of that opening gesture and all that it tells us about the man that David is.
Wisely, none of it’s meant to make us forget these things. Machoian’s movie has a tight aspect ratio which, even as it dwarfs David in the mountainous, oft-barren surroundings of the film’s setting, very much seems to be closing him in, from every side, all the time. For whatever we grow to learn about the other two prongs in this misbegotten trio, to say nothing of Nikki and David’s kids or, for that matter, David’s father, it feels clear that our way into this world is through David’s eyes. The entire film is afflicted with his myopia — his single-minded desire to make his family whole again, his fraught sense that the window of opportunity is steadily closing. This is a movie that makes a tight aspect ratio feel like a noose around its main character’s neck. Because for all the ways that the film seems to see David for who he really is — that man, in the beginning, with the gun — it feels deliberately honed to the contours of who David feels he really is, what he feels the circumstances of his life have become. Which is to say: A man forgotten, a man flailing, a man whose wife promised that they still loved each other and were only separating to work things out — a man who knows but cannot seem to admit to himself that the chances of her holding to that promise of her own accord are dwindling by the hour.
The Killing of Two Lovers is a thriller, of a kind. We watch to see what David will do, in part because we see in Nikki’s face, and hear in her voice, that the couple has no future. And we watch, keyed into this movie’s sense of how David seems to see himself, to make sense of exactly that self-perception. And what we get, in the end, is a portrait of grave denial. This is the braid of ideas I mentioned before. But for a few, sparkling moments of rage, The Killing of Two Lovers offers what feels like a portrait of a father trying his best amid his own wearying uncertainty — trying to make his teenage daughter less moody over his and Nikki’s separation, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy with his sons, who are younger, by overwhelming them with distinctly unfunny dad jokes. Trying to make a date night with Nikki. Trying.
But by the end of the film, much of this seems to be a cavalier adventure in denial — not only of the reality of his relationship to Nikki, but of that rage, which in the way Machoian (who not only directed, but produced, wrote, and edited the project) has designed this film. The good father and the dangerous man feel, in some ways, miles apart, even as the scenes in which we witness these two sides of David practically topple over each other — because of course, this being one person, the compartmentalization cannot be so clean or neat. The Killing of Two Lovers stands out as a feat of design, among all else, for precisely this reason. What should liberate, deflates. That David lives so near to his wife and children should be a boon; instead it makes him privy to what he experiences as a gradual removal from their lives. There’s almost something darkly, sickeningly humorous in this utter lack of distance between these households, in the end.
I wasn’t sure, at first, that it worked; I wasn’t sure that Machoian, whose filmmaking emphasizes the desolate vastness of David’s psychological and moral conditions — down to sound design which makes the interior of David’s head come off like the spooked creaking of a ghost ship or, worse (for him), an empty house — was doing enough to make the man add up. But seeing this as a movie centered not only on, but through, David makes it make sense. And great performances help. The best scene is that attempt at a date night. Finally, startling close-ups, faces that fill the tight margins of the screen, and make their feelings clearer to us than the couple’s actual words seem to make them to each other. The scene has an unforgettable coda, too — a bit of bad timing that only pours salt in the wound. Crawford and Moafi are stellar conduits for all the pain, here, lurking between them.
It only hurts all the more for how genuine their love is — and for the blaring question in the mind of any attentive viewer, of whether Moafi’s Nikki is aware of the other side of David, the side that the film shows us but only barely seems to show her. (Suffice it to say, she sleeps like a baby through the opening scene of the movie.) The Killing of Two Lovers is, yes, a film about “white male rage,” as someone is apt to call it; and even as David’s issues are specific, he doesn’t not qualify for this designation. But the movie’s success is in the design of that rage — in the ways that it understands how easily it can be missed, pushed aside, in a superhuman act of see-no-evil. There’s terror at the heart of this movie, a terror that reaches far into the future of these peoples’ lives. This is the sign that the myopia of the film’s frame isn’t a miscalculation. It is a judgment — a predictive one. And the movie is all the more ominous for it.