by Andrew Wyatt on May 18, 2021

A great opening scene can whet the audience’s appetite, focus their attention, or enfold them in an unfamiliar fictional world. However, it’s rare for the first scene in a film to loom as imposingly as the inaugural shots of writer-director Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers. A man (Clayne Crawford) stands in a bedroom, blinking back tears as he regards the couple slumbering before him. Abruptly, he points a revolver at the oblivious pair. A flushing toilet somewhere in the house seems to derail his murderous intentions, and he quickly slips out the window of the first-floor bedroom and trots away. The camera follows him as he flees down the snowy streets of a forlorn desert mountain town, the landscape dotted with leafless scrub and idle farm machinery. He jogs less than two blocks to another, smaller house, where he pauses to stash the gun in a pickup truck before heading inside. All the while, an ambient score of thrumming, groaning strings – punctuated by unnerving sound effects like a car door slamming and a firearm’s hammer cocking – seems to promise that the worst is yet to come.

This would-be killer is David, who has recently moved back into his childhood home with his elderly father, an irascible but good-humored man plagued by an unspecified respiratory condition. The change in David’s living arrangements is one of necessity rather than filial devotion: He and his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), have recently separated. While David is metaphorically moving backward – and slipping back into his old, prickly dynamic with his dad – Nikki is staying put in their two-story pioneer-style house and looking after their four children, including the teenage Jess (Avery Pizzuto) and three younger boys. This is the house in which David was trespassing just minutes ago, and the two sleepers he was appallingly close to murdering were his wife and her new boyfriend, Derek (Chris Coy).

The opening scene of The Killing of Two Lovers colors every shot that follows it. If one were to chop off the first four-and-a-half minutes of Machoian’s film, it wouldn’t just lose its terrifying potency – it would become another sort of film entirely. On paper, the bulk of the film is a slow-paced domestic drama about the wretched, gurgling dissolution of Nikki and David’s marriage. The sheer, dismal banality of their situation might be this story’s most heartbreaking feature: Having wedded straight out of high school and brought a gaggle of kids into the world – because that’s simply what you do in a go-nowhere Utah town – the couple have reached the point where their shelved dreams have become fuel for petty resentments and explosive arguments. It’s the kind of depressingly prosaic scenario that has served as a basis for countless indie dramas about family, relationships, and small-town life. There’s still the matter of that opening scene, however. Its long shadow lingers menacingly over David’s hapless attempts to charm his wife during a strained date night, or to summon weekend fun for his kids from dollar-store tchotchkes. It constitutes a threat as blunt as the film’s title and as insistent as its ominous score, a vow of the darkest sort: Oh, yes, there will be blood.

The Killing of Two Lovers is Machoian’s debut as a solo feature director, following a decade-plus of collaboration with filmmaker Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck (God Bless the Child, When She Runs). The cunning of Machoian’s screenplay lies in how it uses its quietly incendiary opening scene to intensify David’s every word, glance, and gesture. The dogged ordinariness of the film’s relationship drama – the hurt feelings, shifting blame, and squabbles over quality time with the kids – is thereby transformed into a feature rather than a bug. While Nikki and David are bickering laboriously over his latest screw-up, viewers will inevitably find themselves scrutinizing his every twitch for the latent violence lurking just beneath the surface. It’s a testament to Crawford’s genuine yet carefully controlled performance that it’s at times difficult to square this pitiable, frustrated man with the sort of person who would stroll right up to the line of cold-blooded murder. That said, there are plentiful red flags where David’s behavior is concerned, from his clumsy stalking of the cheerfully unaware Derek to the way he goes berserk on a martial-arts training dummy after a particularly humiliating episode with his wife.

At least some of David’s mounting bitterness seems to be rooted in how rapidly he and his wife have diverged since their separation. She’s basking in a new promotion and contemplating going back to school, while he’s taking odd jobs from neighbors to clear brush. She has moved on to a new flame – an allowance they purportedly both agreed to as part of the separation – but he longs to rekindle the passion they had as newlyweds. There are glimmers here and there of the charismatic man David once was, such as when he croons one of his cornball singer-songwriter stanzas to Nikki a cappella, prompting her to crack a smile despite herself. Even this moment whispers of the resentments that David is concealing, however, hinting at artistic aspirations that were abandoned for the sake of a family that now seems to be dissolving before his eyes.

Unlike many contemporary indie filmmakers who work in a similar mode of bleak realism, Machoian refrains from relying excessively on jittery handheld camera work as a shortcut to verisimilitude. Indeed, many of the film’s most pivotal extended scenes play out in semi-static wide shots, albeit with slow, subtle shifts in framing that create a terrific sense of sinister momentum. It’s a tricky balance, but one that The Killing of Two Lovers pulls off with aplomb, as the film refrains from settling decisively into either lo-fi rural grubbiness or the sterile chilliness of an arthouse Euro-thriller. Which is not to say that the feature lacks a defining aesthetic personality. Machoian achieves a terrific atmosphere simply by shooting on location in the dry flatlands of Kanosh, Utah (pop. 485) under perpetually overcast winter skies. This not only lends the film a robust, authentic sense of place – there’s something about a dried-up Great Basin town that gives off simultaneous neo-Western, neo-noir, and post-apocalyptic vibes – but also reflects David’s gnawing panic that his slow-motion abandonment is already in progress and irreversible.

The film provides glimpses here and there of how others are handling the marriage’s disintegration – Nikki’s weary dissatisfaction at the path her life has taken, for example, or Jesse’s tearful anger at what she perceives to be her parents’ selfish cowardice. Still, The Killing of Two Lovers is told almost exclusively from David’s perspective, even if Machoian’s resolve to keep his protagonist somewhat at arm’s length means that the film can’t properly be regarded as a character study. The viewer gets little sense of what motivates David beyond raw rage, spite, and jealousy, and the grievances that led to the separation are never adequately fleshed out. (Was David negligent? Unfaithful? Abusive? The film never bothers to clarify this backstory.) Which is perhaps the point that Machoian is aiming for: The specifics hardly matter, only the seething sense of male entitlement that pokes and prods at David until one day he is pointing a gun at the mother of his children.

Indeed, The Killing of Two Lovers is not so much about the sort of person that would do such a thing, but about the sort of place that would create such a person – the town, the nation, the culture. Squint at the margins of the film and one can observe other traces of this macro-level dynamic, of the systemic problems that are much larger than the particulars of David’s tribulations. Witness the way that Derek presumptuously inserts himself into Nikki and David’s conflicts, dressing up his sense of ownership over Nikki with unctuous gallantry. Or David’s creepy insistence on extorting a kiss from his teenage daughter, complete with low-key physical intimidation. Or the way that Nikki drops a contemptuous reference to Leave It to Beaver – that terminally square template for patriarchal tranquility. Or what is perhaps the film’s most horrifically revealing moment: When a neighbor interrupts an argument between Jess and David, the latter laughs it off with a wisecrack about murdering his disobedient teenage child, to which the neighbor deadpans, “I’ve got a spot in the back if you need it.” The rot, it seems, goes deeper than any one man.

Rating: B

The Killing of Two Lovers is now available to rent from major online platforms.