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Gripping Marital Drama 'Killing Of Two Lovers' Is Brooding But Never Dull

David (Clayne Crawford) is hoping to keep his family together in <em>The Killing of Two Lovers. </em>
David (Clayne Crawford) is hoping to keep his family together in The Killing of Two Lovers.

Just about every era gets the great end-of-a-marriage movie it deserves, sometimes even more than one. The '70s gave us Scenes From a Marriage and Kramer vs. Kramer; the past decade brought us the Iranian masterpiece A Separationand, more recently, the justly acclaimed Marriage Story.

While it doesn't much resemble any of them, The Killing of Two Lovers belongs in their company. It's a tense, stripped-down, superbly acted drama about a family at a perilous moment of transition. While the movie is never as brutal as its title might suggest, the threat of brutality seems to loom over every frame.

Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi play David and Niki, a small-town Utah couple who have recently agreed to a trial separation. David has moved in with his dad just down the road, close enough to drop in frequently on Niki and their four kids. He's hoping for a reconciliation so that their family can get back together.

But Niki sees the marriage as pretty much over: She and David wed young, right out of high school, and after years of career setbacks, financial difficulties and the many challenges of raising a large family, she's ready to move on. She's already moved on, in fact, with a boyfriend named Derek, played by Chris Coy.

The terms of David and Niki's separation allow them to see other people. But that's small consolation for David, the story's protagonist, who spends much of his time seething with fury. The movie begins with a scene in which you wonder if he really is going to kill the two lovers, whom he finds sleeping one morning in the bed that he used to share with his wife. Later he quietly stalks Derek around town, armed with a pistol that he looks all too willing to use. In both situations, though, his better judgment prevails and he backs down. David is capable of violence, as Crawford's tightly wound performance makes clear. But he also turns out to be more complicated than he appears.

In fact, the entire situation is more complicated than it appears. At one point David and Niki have an agreed-upon "date night," and it's clear from their tender, bittersweet conversation that they still love each other deeply. That doesn't mean the movie is necessarily rooting for their reunion; while the story isn't told from Niki's point of view, Moafi's smart, empathetic performance ensures that we see her side of it. The break-up is of course hard on the kids, whom David adores and tries to spend as much time with as possible, especially his moody teenage daughter.

The Killing of Two Lovers was written and directed by Robert Machoian, a Utah photography professor who's been making films for more than a decade, sometimes with members of his own family. (Here, his three boys play David's sons, and his own father plays David's father.)

Machoian's style is intimate and psychologically raw: Sometimes he and his gifted cinematographer, Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, bring the camera so close that you can see David's every wrinkle and pore. Sometimes they pull back and position him against the flat Utah landscape, whose stark, wintry beauty seems to reflect his own desolation. The movie sounds even more arresting than it looks; instead of a traditional score, it features a soundscape consisting of everyday noises — like the repeated slamming of a car door — that capture the tedium of David's routine.

All this gives The Killing of Two Lovers an extraordinary level of moment-to-moment tension even when it seems as though not much is going on. That's part of the movie's point: So much of the drama in our lives arises not from major events, but rather from the anguished anticipation of those major events. But while David spends a lot of his time brooding, the story never feels dull or repetitive. It's mesmerizing to watch him respond in real time to the fraught situation that he and his family have never been through before.

I won't reveal what happens at the end of The Killing of Two Lovers, except to say that is credible yet surprising, and likely to fill you with a strange mix of hope and alarm. Machoian knows that when it comes to love and family, life is full of unexpected contradictions — and he's done a brilliant job of turning those contradictions into art.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.