If Jeremy Saulnier ever gets it in his head to make a romance movie, it’ll probably look an awful lot like Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers: Sparse, stark and without much space for mercy, even considering the location. The film takes place against the backdrop of desolate rural Utah, a wide open area full of naught but gloom. It’s American purgatory. Similarly, Machoian’s protagonist David (Clayne Crawford) lives in domestic purgatory, separated from his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) and their four kids, who together remain in the house David bought them while he crashes with his ailing father (Bruce Graham). It’d be a lie to say Nikki’s okay with the arrangement, but she’s not not okay with it.
David isn’t okay with it. He isn’t okay at all, in fact. “Okay” people don’t generally hover over their sleeping wife with a gun in hand, aiming first at her and then the man lying next to her, later introduced as Derek (Chris Coy). To David’s credit, he ignores the dictates of Anton Chekhov and takes a powder when a loud noise spooks him, running all the way back to his dad’s home and spinning up a lie to explain just why in the hell he was out so early in the morning. It’s a grim opening. What unfolds from there is comparatively less grim, but nonetheless heartbreaking despite the rise in sobriety.
Machoian’s take on his material is too controlled for the good of his themes. The Killing of Two Lovers is full of filmmaking that upfront qualifies as “good”: Strong compositions, static shots and long takes, all capturing abiding hopelessness in both the nowhere David and Nikki have laid down roots and in David himself. But Machoian keeps such a firm grip over each component of his production that he ends up calling attention to his weakness as a filmmaker, which falls under the “writing” side of the writer-director hyphen.
He’s focused on style at the expense of substance. The Killing of Two Lovers is remarkable to behold, but all the technique in the world can’t distract from the holes littering the production beyond cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiminez’s lens. Machoian both has too much and too little going on, laboring relentlessly to show off as a director. He knows where to aim a camera, but the images he creates with Jiminez impress without leaving a mark. They lack proximity to and familiarity with the subjects.
David and Nikki’s struggle comes from a real, understandable place, of course: They married out of high school and haven’t known a life with anyone other than each other, which is one straw too many given their geographic isolation. Dating Derek at least breaks up the crushing sameness of Nikki’s existence, though frankly it isn’t clear what she sees in him as a person and we’re never given a reason for her attraction to him. Machoian keeps his viewers at distance from her for most of the film.
He’s more interested in David, a shallow character shaped into a person thanks only to Crawford’s performance. He’s feral but tender, a bear looking out for his cubs and a way back into the cave, and he’s very desperate, something Crawford wears behind his eyes even in David’s better moments. There’s pathos in his stare. The Killing of Two Lovers doesn’t make an effort at letting the audience know who David and Nikki are other than base descriptions of parents, providers and fractured sweethearts, instead emphasizing an aesthetic that’s as accomplished as it is ultimately empty.
At least we’re able to see what their parenting looks like, and what they risk by toeing the line of divorce. The story comes alive when the kids figure in—particularly eldest daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto), angry at mom and dad and aching for them to fix their problems. Her anguish is meaningful, but neglected through the wall Machoian’s direction erects between us and her.
As a craftsman, Machoian knows what he’s doing. He just doesn’t seem to know why he’s doing it, which drains The Killing of Two Lovers of emotional drive: We’re removed from David and Nikki by the attention paid to the camera instead of the characters. The film’s restraint never enjoys an expressive release, and Machoian’s surface bravura offers neither payoff nor conclusion. Machoian understands how to shoot a picture, no question. Whether he understands how to make a full-on movie is another—though someone with his eye certainly must have a very good one in them somewhere. It just isn’t The Killing of Two Lovers.
Director: Robert Machoian
Writer: Robert Machoian
Starring: Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi, Chris Coy
Release Date: May 14, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.