The Killing of a Two Lovers starts, unusually, with a climax, backs off quite a bit to let us work out what’s going on, before returning with another climax at the end, exactly where we’d expect one to be.
It opens with two people in bed asleep. Hovering over them is a bearded man with a desperate look on his face and a gun in his hand. He hears a noise from somewhere else in the house, takes fright and climbs out the ground-floor window and makes good his escape. The two people sleep on unawares, while we head out with David, the desperate guy, and find out more about him.
The film is the story of David, the guy with the gun, a man estranged from his wife – they’re “trying to work things out,” he says, perhaps more in hope than expectation – currently living with his ailing dad, grabbing moments with his kids as and when, holding down a job in a small town where everyone seems to know and like him. All the evidence writer/director Robert Machoian presents us with is that David is a decent sort of guy. And yet that opening scene says something different. We’re intrigued.
The strange sound design adds audio hints. Eerie ratchet noises, clicks, a sudden huge increase in volume, the entire soundscape becoming suddenly mushy. They echo David’s state of mind, perhaps. Something’s growling along inside him, or maybe it’s something trying to start itself up – his rage, perhaps.
We scan David’s kids for clues in their interactions with their father. The three young boys are going along with the new living arrangement and their weekend-dad’s new status. They’re blithely indifferent for the most part. His daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto, very good) seems angry with him about something, or maybe it’s just a pissy teenager being pissy. Still no smoking gun.
By structuring his drama as a mystery thriller, Machoian has turned his audience into investigators and so is able to run incredibly long takes without the risk of boredom setting in. A scene as simple as David and wife Nikki sitting in the car talking about not very much becomes a prime piece of evidence under review in the ongoing investigation into what’s really playing out. Is she really trying to “work things out” or just trying to find the best way to get rid of him for good? Sometimes Machoian and DP Oscar Ignacio Jiménez shove the camera right up in the face of David and Nikki, as if Sherlock Holmes had brought out his magnifying glass.
Taking their cue from the director, actors Clayne Crawford (probably best known for playing the crazy Mel Gibson role in the TV series Lethal Weapon) and Sepideh Moafi (The Deuce) offer performances that are somehow both passionate and poker-faced. If David is closed off, though outwardly affable, Nikki’s relationship with new guy Derek (Chris Coy, particularly effective when he has to be) is largely a mystery. Is it sex, love, respite, what?
As I say, there’s a climax at the end but it almost doesn’t matter which way it turns out. The film is a journey in engaging company, an exercise in pure drama, Machoian setting up a tension at the beginning that is sustained all the way to the end, no matter how low he turns the gas – and he does drop it deliberately low, as if to say “look, Ma, no hands!”
The bleak, snow-spattered Utah location – this would have been a one-horse town once upon a time and still looks like one – sitting beneath a lowering mountain range gives the whole thing a Scandinavian aspect and it has the same dramatic tug (off-kilter family relations) as many a Nordic Noir.
It is in short an excellent and remarkably economical drama with every aspect of it – sound, camera, the actors, the location – working like a piece in the jigsaw. Machoian, mostly a director of documentary shorts, has arrived.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021