Hot off the success of the 2019 Sundance hit The Minors, writer-director-editor Robert Machoian returns with his timely debut feature film The Killing of Two Lovers. The tightly concocted drama focuses on the desperate and often disturbing attempts of isolated everyman David (Clayne Crawford) as he struggles to restore the family unit of his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), teenage daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzuto), and their three sons during a trial marital separation. Resentment and paranoia quickly rise to the surface as David’s fear of total loss manifests itself in the form of Nikki’s romantic interest in her coworker, Derek (Chris Coy). The concept of the greater good prevails in almost every encounter, as love and peace are the coveted prizes and the sources of intense anguish.
Machoian wastes no time engaging the audience, as The Killing of Two Lovers delves into David’s disillusioned world view, evidenced by the barrel of his cocked gun. It only gets hairier from there as the director uses extreme close ups and off-kilter long shots to emphasize David’s departure from reality and his heightened paranoia resulting from despair and a shattered sense of self-worth. The sound of the persistent grinding of a cocking gun highlights David’s struggle with his inner demons and the overwhelming desire to harm his wife and her lover. Adding to this sense of isolation is the film’s grey natural lighting and the eroding, mundane rural community and residences.
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The Killing of Two Lovers’ subject matter is all too familiar. Because it is so common, Machoian makes a wise choice to keep the setting and characters simple. This approach is also quite timely in 2020 when the film’s focus — family, love and home life — are front and center in our daily existence. Machoian steers clear of the traditional three act structure in favor of several leaner climactic moments that erupt amidst the otherwise monotonous slow pace of a turtle. These episodic explosions allow viewers to get into David’s head, heart and skin, and to suffer the slow burn with him.
Machoian crafts a believable atmosphere using ultra-realism. David’s interactions with his father and wife, along with the swapping of Mitch Hedberg jokes with his rambunctious sons, are just a few standout moments that feature the writer-director’s witty, naturalistic dialogue. The tradeoff, however, is that specific sequences, such as David and Nikki’s awkward “date night,” risk driving viewers to sheer boredom. Rather than relying on words, Machoian should lean more on his actor’s facial expressions, cinematography and audio mixing to communicate these ideas.
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As David, Crawford creates a strong sense of intensity, vulnerability and desperation. This balancing act is evident through the character’s stalking of Nikki’s love interest, Derek. The image of David cowering in fear behind the driver’s wheel of his truck is reminiscent of the cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz, and his maddening desire to kill Derek, out of warped sense of jealousy, feels reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Crawford’s well-executed physical mannerisms, like rolling the hair and dirt off his body with a lint brush, further add to the depth to his character’s desperation to win his wife back. Crawford’s best moments occur between him and Pizzuto’s Jess, as each interaction emphasizes the strain and sorrow that the family endures.
While Machoian’s in-depth character study of David and creative storytelling techniques feel like a breath of fresh air, he missed some opportunities to minimize repetition and sluggishness. David’s character background and the circumstances that led to his breakdown are too vague and remain in the shadows. Machoian might have been better off stealing from the playbook of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story by incorporating brief glimpses of David’s past life and hints of the fallout that lead to the muddled state of affairs and a broken heart. A second characterization flaw is the diminished female presence. With Moafi as Nikki, Machoian has a strong female presence and yet does so little with her. Viewers never attain a full appreciation of everything going on in her mind other than a frustrated tinge of underdeveloped potential and subdued contentment. And by the time a gun cocks for the fifth time, the plot device is played out. A broader female perspective would have broken the monotony.
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Overall, The Killing of Two Lovers is by no stretch of the imagination an original or revolutionary production. It lacks the more textured storytelling of a seasoned filmmaker, and at times the sound mixing is bit overplayed. Yet, how wonderful it is to watch a film in 2020 that displays style and true enthusiasm for the art of movie-making. Machoian’s ultra-realistic dialogue and passion for visual storytelling suggests that he’ll be a future award winner.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.