‘The Killing of Two Lovers’ Tells a Raw Story of a Marriage Breaking Apart With Subdued Intensity

Vast and raging emotions tremble beneath the surface of “The Killing of Two Lovers,” a stark new drama set in one of those lonesome corners of America where everyone is bottled together in the same, small town. Typically a film like this goes for sensational gestures or overwrought melodrama, but this feature debut by director Robert Machoian feels like a chronicle about real people. When heartbreak or possessiveness leads to violence, rarely is it like a movie, but instead pitifully tragic. “It came out of two things. One was my wife and I were reaching 20 years of marriage, and we’ve got five kids. In marriage you go through good and rough patches and periods of normalcy, where things are kind of working,” Machoian told Entertainment Voice. “But many of our friends were separating or getting divorced and I was watching male friends do things that were so out of character, kind of mind blowing.”

Machoian’s film is set in rural Utah, where a man named David (Clayne Crawford) stands over a bed where two lovers lie, a gun in his hand. How things came to this point forms the absorbing, tensely serene narrative of the film. David is undergoing a trial separation with wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), with whom he has four children. This is a small town where everyone knows each other and where lifelong couples tend to form in high school, which is where David met Nikki. Something has soured the relationship and they now live separately yet mere feet apart in the same neighborhood. David tries to put on a brave face, playing it cool when visiting the kids or taking them out, but we soon sense an obsessive behavior silently spinning out of control. Now living with his father, David obviously tells himself Nikki will come back. But when he sees another man leave what used to be their joint home, it dawns on David she is seeing someone else, and a more violent tension will form between the two.

“The Killing of Two Lovers” has the lyrical edge of films like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” in how it finds stories of raw emotion in the American heartland. It’s a sparse, confined movie about moments. David and Nikki agree on a “date night,” but their drive turns into a mixture of empathy and then dangerous jealousy. In controlled shots without a single cut, Machoian masterfully shows how an outing can quickly switch from David singing a tender song he wrote to Nikki, to him boiling over when he sees her new lover, Derek (Chris Coy), bringing flowers to what used to be their porch. “I found articles about couples entering a period of drift,” said Machoian. “It’s a moment where a couple might talk about their children’s activities more than their relationship, for example. They stop taking more time for themselves and this disconnect forms. Clayne called me, he was trying to also make a film for years, and he said, ‘hey I’ve got some money, do you have any cameras, locations, resources? Can you write something so we can make a movie together?’ So I wrote a short film idea that was the date sequence in the film and so it expanded from there.”

“Robert and I had been trying to make a movie for ten years,” Crawford told Entertainment Voice, “With this story I was interested first because we could shoot it for nothing. We had very limited resources. But Robert is drawn to character pieces. He comes from that world where if you have great performances, you will have a great film. He’s wonderful in his writing in creating worlds for his characters to live in. But he doesn’t overwrite. It allows for you to shoot in a way where the material just washes over you and you don’t need to make a lot of cuts or coverage.” The acting in “The Killing of Two Lovers” is indeed so vivid and believable that the editing doesn’t need big, feverish gestures. Machoian holds many long shots which convey the story visually and intensely, like the moment Derek brings flowers or an argument with Nikki that soon spirals into violence. Crawford’s performance, so full of sincerity and control, gives the impression of a man who could be good, but he can’t control the emotional storm overtaking him. He gets loud and mean when he should listen. He isn’t psychotic, but he can get there. “It was a town of 350, surrounded by mountains, with nothing around for 45 miles. So we rehearsed all the time. Me and Sepideh made that two block drive many times, driving and talking. We had 12 days and $32,000. We had to make every moment count. We knew we had a couple of takes and it had to be perfect.”

“We shot in Kanosh, Utah, which felt so right,” said Machoian. “You have these beautiful landscapes and then this town with amazing people there, but almost every other house is falling apart and decaying. I felt that was a great metaphor for marriage. Wanting to commit to someone for a lifetime is this beautiful idea that we’re very naïve about, but the reality is gritty. The town was like the reality of marriage.” Always with overcast skies, the world of David and Nikki feels like a relationship with its feelings being drained. They speak with each other with the sadness of entrapped people. Maybe one of them could move away, but could they? One can feel the silent hell in David when he goes to a store and sees Derek. It’s unavoidable in this environment. We don’t even sense why David and Nikki were ever together, as tends to happen in such places. Nikki wanted to be a lawyer and subtly blames David for holding her back. A man with few prospects, David has the burning frustration of a man who can’t change in his life what should be changed.

“We start with David having his foot on the peddle, he has said ‘fuck it,’ in that scene with the gun,” said Crawford. “But no one is black and white. We are all so complex, we are capable of such horrific and tender, beautiful things. It just depends what circumstances we are placed in. As a father, I understood David as losing his grasp on a reality that he had created, that he had spent the better part of 15 years creating. We understand by his career path that he just wants to be with his children. He does not exist without these children. When you operate from that place, and there’s a danger of all that being taken from you, and another man is coming into the picture, I very easily understood where he was coming from. It was a place of fear. Many things stem from that, fear and love.” 

A film like “The Killing of Two Lovers” keeps alive a tradition in American independent cinema in how it takes a genre we think we recognize, but turns it into something much truer and even richer, pulled off with less resources. When someone pulls a gun in this movie there is a more unnerving aspect to it because it is done with the clumsy danger you read about in true crime stories, where rarely are any masterminds involved. Instead this is not a melodramatic romance, but a film about the fragility of human beings. David and Nikki lost whatever bond they had, but David refuses to let go. Nothing can be as dangerous as a person who feels everything they have to lose is being taken away, no matter how blind they become. In the case of someone like David, that blindness can push to extremes they never imagined themselves crossing.

The Killing of Two Lovers” releases May 14 in select theaters.