Opening on what appears to be the verge of its titular act, Robert Machoian’s “The Killing of Two Lovers” then steadily pulls back from what sounds like a noirish potboiler of marital infidelity and rage. Instead, his economical drama is really about the pain of marital separation, particularly when one party is pulling toward divorce and the other toward reconciliation, as is so often the case.
Stark as the surrounding Western Utah landscapes its characters seem dwarfed by (it was shot in tiny Kanosh, pop. 476), the terse narrative may be a bit too stripped down for those seeking more conventional melodrama. Commercial prospects will not be high. But this first solo feature (Machoian co-directed three prior ones with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck) is an arresting auteurist miniature that should travel far on the festival circuit, perhaps picking up awards that might heighten appeal to niche distributors in various formats.
An odd-jobber in his podunk town — where there appears to be exactly one store — shaggy 30-something David (Clayne Crawford) is first glimpsed in a state of armed emotional extremis standing over the bed of his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi), who’s not alone there. But the moment passes without incident, the potential victims not even waking to discover their peril. David climbs out a window of what had until recently been his own home, runs the few hundred yards back to the house of his ailing widower dad (Bruce Graham) and resumes the existence of unsettled waiting he’s had since he and Niki decided they “needed a break.”
They also decided that, having married right out of high school, with four kids following, they’re allowed to “see other people” during this trial period. Except it becomes obvious these are things only Niki wants; David hopes they constitute a mere phase that will soon end so their still-young family can return to normal. Now he’s panicked she seeks a permanent out, particularly as she’s begun dating Derek (Chris Coy), a white-collar worker who appears very slick alongside considerate, loyal but unpolished David. So far the couple’s three rambunctious young boys (Arri, Ezra and Jonah Graham) seem to be rolling with the situation pretty well. But it has taken a toll on teenage daughter Jesse (Avery Pizzuto), who blames both parents for “ruining my life” with this domestic instability.
Though there’s some very astute dialogue writing here, Machoian favors long takes that often give the scenes a semi-improvised feel, particularly in the natural dynamic of Crawford’s interactions with the child actors. That tact also heightens a tension always simmering here, as hitherto compliant David heeds Jesse’s plea to “fight for us,” simultaneously fearing that strong-willed Niki has already as much as abandoned their marriage.
There is no question that some kind of explosion is coming, the film itself acting as a sort of magnifying glass under whose heat relationships might combust. But while that expectation is indeed satisfied, it is not met in the way a viewer is likely to anticipate, from the title or anything else.
The somewhat desolate, probably financially hard-pressed environment is vividly captured (especially by DP Oscar Ignacio Jimenez’s mostly Academy-ratio imagery), yet “Killing” does not hew to familiar stereotypes of rural life or character. Crawford’s dominating performance makes David no hick but a sensitive and accommodating man a bit intimidated by his admittedly “much smarter” wife, flailing in his efforts to hold together a family unit he can’t go on without.
His perspective provides a poignant, unsentimental depiction of a common circumstance, lent intriguing frisson by the rigor of Machoian’s overall aesthetic. That’s furthered by his unhurried yet never slack editorial pace. In lieu of a musical score, there’s a sort of musique concrete soundtrack by sound designer Peter Albrechtsen. He weaves noises like a turning-over truck engine and harsh mechanical percussion (perhaps a wrench struck on metal) into the equivalent of Bernard Herrmann’s “Taxi Driver” score — an audio Rorschach of the protagonist’s helplessly escalating anxiety.