In the opening moments of Robert Machoian's wonderful The Killing of Two Lovers, a middle-aged man stands over a sleeping couple, pointing a gun at them. He is clearly pained and deciding if he is going to act on his anguish. Then a toilet flushed somewhere off-screen. He immediately loses his nerve and flees, running down the street. This sets up a time bomb of suspense that ticks along for the entire movie.
The man is David (Clayne Crawford). The couple is his wife Nikki (Sepideh Graham) and another man. We learn early on that Nikki has asked David for a break, one where they can see other people. David has no interest in other people. David is not handling the separation well Together, David and Nikki have three young sons and a teenage daughter (Avery Pizzuto).
It is easy to assume that the film would be a tale of broken masculinity and dangerous testosterone and it is. However, the film is so much more exploring the fracturing of a family and the mundane woes of a messy and damaged relationship. Violence haunts every frame of the film as David does his best to keep his kids close and repair things with Nikki. His best is not great though. David stalks Derek (Chris Coy), the man Nikki was sleeping with during the opening moments of the film. We know they will confront each other at some point but we don't know how it will play out. This makes every interaction between them sizzle with intensity. When they do clash, it is not what you may expect and is far harder to watch than I imagined.
The Killing of Two Lovers features some incredible sound design. The soundtrack is full of dissonant sounds of engines, clanking, and thudding. It suggests the fragile mental state of David. We see many other sides of David, not just his building frustration. He dotes on his kids, taking them out to launch rockets, telling his boys jokes, and trying to talk to his daughter who is all too aware of what is happening. The small-town setting gives a sense of claustrophobia as just about everywhere David goes, someone says hi to him. His personal business is likely everyone's business.
In an incredible scene mid-way through the film, Nikki and David go out on a scheduled date. They wind up not going on the planned date and staying within sight of their house, with the kids at home. David at one point sings a song he wrote about Nikki. His unaccompanied, bare voice quivers as he expresses himself. Wisely, director Machoian doesn't cut to Nikki during this scene. This speaks to the way the film shows us David's state of mind. It never excuses his behavior or the violence itching to burst from him but it does make it comprehensible. The song is interrupted by the arrival of Derek, in a moment so real and awkward it feels like it happened to Machoian himself. It's these details that make the film so unique and honest.
The entire film rides on the performances. Clayne Crawford as David is a revelation. Best know for his role on the TV's Rectify, Crawford humanizes David even when he is close to murder. He comes off as dangerous and sympathetic all at the same time. It is an incredible performance that very few actors could pull off.
Overall, The Killing of Two Lovers is a controlled, thoughtful, and empathetic thriller that feels unlike other films dealing with the same topics of broken relationships and infidelity. It is one of the best films of the year and something worth seeking out for fans of independent gems.