The Killing of Two Lovers stars a protagonist, David (Clayne Crawford), who's a quintessential portrait of classic Southern masculinity. The first time we see him, he's using a gun to solve his problems. As if that weren't enough, David also drives a red 4x4 pick-up truck, got married to his High School weather when he was just 18, and has a speaking voice that sounds like Josh Turner. His life is like a Billy Currington song, but those tunes merely do a surface-level glamorization of that person. In The Killing of Two Lovers, we get a more complicated exploration of this kind of figure. This is not a film that's out to demonize David but the inherently messy nature of two people growing apart offers plenty of opportunities to challenge David by shaking up his status quo.
As The Killing of Two Lovers opens, David is growing accustomed to a new living arrangement with his partner, Nikki (Sedipeh Moafi). The two have four kids but have opted to live apart, with David moving back in with his dad. They've also agreed to see other people during this period of separation. It's all so thorny, it's not the kind of tidy romance David once thought he and Nikki could share. The film takes place over approximately two days in the lives of these characters and we get to see, among other events, how this new living arrangement is impacting the kids, David and Nikki attempting to go out on a date night, and a conflict-ridden attempt at father/children bonding at a park.
Writer/director Robert Machoian imbues The Killing of Two Lovers with the restraint of a Mike Leigh movie but the ambiance of a Cormac McCarthy slow-burn Southern thriller. The latter detail is most evidently seen in the character of David himself. From frame one, we know his difficulties with handling his new status quo is causing him to lash out at others. Watching that internalized frustration slowly bubble and boil is quite compelling, especially in the handful of scenes where David is totally alone. His exchanges with other characters are largely devoid of music to accentuate the realism of these conversations as well as to make sure the audience is focused entirely on the dialogue. However, when David is the only person in the frame, the soundtrack tends to incorporate this ominous music paired up with these grinding sound effects. It's an evocative auditory manifestation of the interior turmoil David feels over his current life.
Meanwhile, Machoian subtly establishes a sense of history in the world David inhabits. The way he knows the names of every person he runs into at the local feed store, the warm rapport between David and his father, even just the lived-in chemistry between David and Nikki. They all quietly but effectively suggest how the world of The Killing of Two Lovers has been turning long before the audience dropped by and will continue to spin long after the credits finish rolling. Not only does this make the whole production feel more firmly rooted in reality but it also captures the sensation of David being dwarfed by the world around him.
All of these qualities are captured through Machoian's filmmaking, which, on paper, sounds like an amalgamation of all the visual quirks of 2021 indie cinema. Stripped-down handheld camerawork defined late 2000s indie films. Tarantino knock-off's defined so much of 1990s indie cinema. Visual traits like the 4:3 aspect ratio and static wide shots become common in the modern indie landscape and Killing of Two Lovers utilizes them both. Thankfully, Machoian uses the qualities successfully enough to make sure the movie doesn't lapse into becoming a pastiche of other recent indie endeavors. The aspect ratio is a thoughtful way to convey how David and the other characters feel trapped. Meanwhile, the use of prolonged wide shots turns out to be an ingenious way to capture the volatile mood felt by members of this family.
Machoian uses uninterrupted shots to realistically capture how the strain of families changing can lead to people turning from joy to anger to sadness all on a dime. This is best seen in a scene involving David's daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto), where elation over a rocket quickly turns into frustration and then into raging at the heavens over the uncertainty hovering over her family. Captured in an unbroken take, Machoian lends tangible reality to the sudden shifts in mood. That sense of realism even extends to how David comes across as a realistic representation of a Southern man in crisis rather than a redneck caricature. This comes through even during the multiple moments where Machoia conveys the idea that David staunchly adhering to old-school thoughts on masculinity is not the best coping mechanism for his problems. Watching this man steer his way through that process results in plenty of bumps, no easy answers, and some exceptional filmmaking.
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