The title alone of The Killing of Two Lovers gets the nerves jangling – and its ambiguous opening scene just plucks them further. Don’t expect that concerned feeling to go away anytime during this tense US indie, which is an impressive snapshot of a modern family in slow-motion meltdown.
We meet shaggy father-of-four David (Clayne Crawford) in the wake of a marital separation in very-small-town Utah. He’s living in a small unkempt house with his ageing dad (Bruce Graham) just a few streets from his ‘smarter’ (his words) wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi), who still lives in the bigger, grander family home with their school-age kids. On the surface, things are cordial: when they meet, the pair talk of seeing other people and discuss co-parenting the kids. But we know otherwise.
Inside, David is dying. First, there’s that opening scene of him holding a gun and standing over the bed of his sleeping estranged wife and her new boyfriend, Derek (Chris Coy) – neither of them aware of the danger. It colours everything to come, and it puts us on alert for an imminent nightmare. Then, there’s the disorienting, discomforting score, seemingly containing the sound of metal on metal, maybe a gun being cocked. It’s the soundtrack of a disturbed mind. Finally, there’s the ominous tension of the film’s perspective: it’s David who we stick close to, never leaving his side, and he’s obviously falling apart. The film sets David up as a ticking emotional time bomb, a criminal-in-waiting.
Is this a portrait of a crazed soon-to-be-ex-husband? A vision of male rage bubbling up towards inevitable disaster? That’s how it feels. But writer-director-editor Robert Machoian impressively upends expectations along the way. David is also a dad, a son, a husband, and Machoian builds the portrait of him over time.
Formally, it’s a great achievement, and Oscar Ignacio Jiménez’s supremely-controlled cinematography sits powerfully alongside the looser acting, which at times feels improvised. Some of the film’s most affecting scenes are those of David and his kids as he tries to hold together family life at the same time as he feels it falling apart. The film offers little relief to the nerves, but it’s a surprising, curious drama, consistently thoughtful, artful and provocative.
In UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now.