Anton Chekhov operated under an overarching philosophy when it came to structuring his novels and plays.
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off,” the Russian writer famously stated.
Well, the characters in “The Killing of Two Lovers” may not be all that familiar with Chekhovian theories, but the film itself always threatens to obey similar dramatic principles. David, the handyman and laborer played at a slow burn by Clayne Crawford, carries a loaded pistol throughout the film, and the viewers’ knowledge that the weapon could go off at any time injects the movie with an almost unbearable tension.
“The gun is a symbol of toxic masculinity,” says Robert Machoian, the film’s writer and director. “There’s never an appropriate time for that thing to ever get pulled out or used.”
And David seems ready to use it. He wants to reconcile with his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi), and repair their family, a rag-tag group of teens and tykes played by Machoian’s own children. But Niki seems ready to move on. She’s getting professional fulfillment from her work as a paralegal and is in a new relationship with Derek (Chris Coy), a white collar worker who is more polished and successful than David.
“She’s struggling, too,” says Moafi. “She loves David, but she’s recognizing that she’s in a relationship with someone who may be stunting her own potential. They don’t hate each other, but there are a lot of other things that are getting in their way.”
In contrast to its gritty themes, the film itself has been something of a Cinderella story. Shot for $32,000 (with post-production work that cost roughly the same) over 12 days, “The Killing of Two Lovers” was a hit with critics when it premiered at Sundance last year. Reviewers praised Crawford’s devastating performance and Machoian’s confident pacing and dramatic restraint. It was picked up for distribution by Neon, the indie studio that helped propel Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” to Oscar glory. It debuts on Feb. 23 and could be a late addition to the awards season race if it can attract enough attention.
“We had no expectations for this,” says Crawford, who produced the movie in addition to starring in it. “We really were just interested in doing this as a proof of concept. We wanted this to be sort of an industry calling card, where people could see it and realize we were capable of making something worth watching.”
Indeed, Crawford and Machoian had been kicking together ideas for years without being able to attract financing. “The Killing of Two Lovers” has changed that. The duo are poised to reunite on “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” a drama about a family man who must learn to hunt in order to provide for his family. Jordana Brewster, best known for her leading roles in Universal’s “Fast and Furious“ franchise, will co-star.
“The Killing of Two Lovers” also represents a reset of sorts for Crawford. After an acclaimed run on “Rectify,” a critically adored albeit little seen cable drama, he landed a starring role opposite Damon Wayans in the Fox action comedy television series “Lethal Weapon.” But during the show’s second season, Crawford was fired due to reported bad behavior that included outbursts on the set and clashes with castmates and crew members. The actor, two years removed from the incident, appears ready to turn the page and return to his indie roots.
“My two years on ‘Lethal Weapon’ were very positive overall, and I’m living my dream as a filmmaker because of that series,” Crawford says. “The relationships that blossomed from that experience allowed me to find success as producer. I love being on set, I love making films and I have a certain work ethic that allows me to find success as an actor. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a studio film or a micro-budget movie. I wish I could have handled that situation differently, but I’ve grown from it.”
In the case of “The Killing of Two Lovers,” both Crawford and Machoian were hoping to highlight the blue collar communities that are often ignored by Hollywood. They shot the picture in Kanosh, Utah, a tiny town with a population of 474 people that boasts stunning mountain ranges and little in the way of commerce besides one, lonely general store.
“The community is amazing,” says Machoian. “You’ll have a nice house next to a house falling down and in the background there are these majestic mountains. It kind of works as a metaphor. When we first think about marriage, we fantasize about this beautiful thing, and we don’t think about the nitty gritty of finances and children and bills to pay and career decisions.”
Finances play a big role in “The Killing of Two Lovers.” You can tell that David weighs buying each convenience store coffee and every gift for his kids against the growing specter of a potential divorce that could be financially catastrophic.
“‘Marriage Story’ came out a few months after we wrapped and you watch Adam Driver write a check for $20,000 for his lawyer,” says Crawford. “Not many people can do that in the middle of this country. Our story seems more relatable. Robert and I have this mutual friend, and he couldn’t afford to get divorced from his wife. They didn’t have the money. That’s the harsh reality for many people.”
“The Killing of Two Lovers” is unsparing in its depiction of David’s mental and emotional deterioration. That’s part of what reviewers embraced. Before heading to Sundance, the filmmakers were warned that they might have gone a step too far. The movie opens with Nikki in bed, asleep next to her new boyfriend, while David looms over the couple brandishing his pistol.
“Unanimously, people said, ‘You can’t point a gun at a women’s head in your first scene. Please don’t do this,'” Crawford remembers. “But the whole point of the film is to create this dangerous energy that David is unstable and losing his grip on reality. Every time he enters a scene, you need to be terrified of what might happen. So we just said, screw it and rolled the dice.”