The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)
Written & Directed by Robert Machoian
From the title, you likely have some expectations. This is going to be a film with violence centered around a relationship of some kind. And you would sort of be correct, but The Killing of Two Lovers is a much more complicated film than that. It’s a story told from a very particular perspective with a purpose. I came across a review from the British Film Institute publication Sight & Sound about this movie that completely shocked me. They read the picture as an obscured defense of the central character, and that baffled me. After watching the movie, Ariana and I had a totally different read than many others, immediately discussing how the ending left us feeling very unsettled.
David (Clayne Crawford) is going through a separation with his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). When the film opens, we are given a startling sight: David stands over Nikki and her boyfriend Derek (Chris Coy), pointing a revolver at them as they sleep. Is he going to kill them right there in the opening of the movie? Of course, he does not, slipping quietly out of the house he used to live in, a place he believes is rightfully his. However, that moment of potential murder looms over the rest of the picture, keeping the audience wondering if or when he’s going to kill them. David and Nikki have four children together, and they become a centerpiece of whatever connection will be left. While Nikki is showing signs that she is getting her life together with new ventures at work, David has moved back in with his ailing father, complains about being treated like a child again, and does odd jobs here and there for people in their small town.
I was riveted by this film which is quite a thing to say as a lot of the film was slow with little happening. This allowed the tension to build in the same way a good horror film doesn’t jump to the terrifying parts or (even better) when said horror film never fully delivers and just forces the viewer to stew in this brutal, anxious state. The Killing of Two Lovers has an 85-minute runtime which means it never overstays its welcome and never over-explains anything. I think the most telling part of the film will be how you individually react to David, what kind of a person you believe him to be.
After the opening sequence, David’s murderous intent appears to simmer down. Instead, the movie focuses on his melancholy and especially on his relationship with his children. He certainly says the right things, chastising his eldest child for blaming Nikki for the split. But the filmmaker constantly keeps the truth obscured from us so that we are perpetually unsure of how we want this all to turn out. Nikki doesn’t seem unhappy about the direction of things; she certainly feels sorry for David and wishes her kids didn’t have to go through with this, but she is blossoming as a person.
The environment of rural Utah plays a vital role in all of this, reflecting the desolation of David. Nikki appears as someone who should get out of this place; she has greater opportunities elsewhere. Everywhere David goes in town, he’s recognized, and in turn, this implies he’s trapped here. His dad is treating him like he’s in high school, and there’s no forward momentum. The tiny bits we see of Derek show he’s more put together, even-keeled in demeanor, and there’s no reason to dislike him. Yet, because the film is set in David’s head, it’s going to cause you to want Derek to go away. That is until the third act.
The picture never spells out exactly what led to this trial separation, but some bits of dialogue give the audience insight into what may. Derek delivers some lines right before the movie’s climax that definitely indicate David was violent & abusive. This is followed by the lowest moment for our main character since the film’s start; he is about as broken as a person could get. And it’s in this most pathetic of moments, I think the intention of the title is revealed. The killing you’re expecting, and the identities of the two lovers won’t turn out to be who you think.
The sound design is immaculate, mixing unsettling ambient tones with the sounds of David’s door closing or the hammer of a gun cocking. It’s essential to consider when the movie applies this unnerving score because we are hearing in the final seemingly “happy” ending. That indicator told me that the audience should begin questioning just how good it was that things turned out this way. It’s the music we hear when David is most lost in his emotions and anger, but we’re seeing it juxtaposed with a moment of seeming domestic calm. My read is that the tense is boiling again, cycles are being repeated, more frustration and sadness are on the way.