Director, writer, editor Robert Machoian‘s The Killing of Two Lovers is one I’ve been keeping an eye on since it got picked up by NEON. A pseudo-thriller seamlessly disguised as a very raw marriage break-up story, focusing on a small-town high-school sweetheart couple who has, after four children, decided to take a break. When our hardworking yet clearly internally rage-filled protagonist David discovers that his suddenly despondent wife Niki is cheating on him during their break, the pressures, anger, reckless abandon, and jealousy of their separation begin to gradually and dangerously boil inside of him. An intimate and perceptive peak into a crumbling relationship that highlights the toll it takes on each member, how differently some react, and the importance in regarding one’s children. While not a debut per se—his debut outing as a solo director though—The Killing of Two Lovers feels very much like a first time feature effort with a lot of future promise if given a more notable cast and slightly bigger budget. I strongly feel that this same plot and script for the most part could even translate well onto the stage.
Whether intentional or not, Machoian undoubtedly frames the father/husband David as the protagonist of his story, making it impossibly difficult to side with his inconsiderate wife Niki. In not placing focus on Niki, the marital divide forces us to lean more towards David, as he is confronted with more and more blatant signs of spite, dismissal, and anger. Despite the mutually agreed upon break with permission to see other people, the film does not make it easy to empathize with the mother who creates unnecessary hassles: having a door opened for her, passing blame onto the husband for why kids can’t go out, deciding to cancel a planned date night last minute so she can sleep with her new boyfriend. Furthermore, David is consistently shown caring for his four children, whether it be tracking down the eldest daughter trying to play hooky, or looking up his sons’ favorite comedian on Netflix to tell them jokes at two in the morning. I’m not saying that one side of the relationship is better or worse than the other, but Machoian clearly crafts a paternal perspective to this narrative.
Like in all failing relationships, there is a centrally corrupting communication issue; in this case no matter how many boundaries Niki puts up, she fails to just confront David and tell him it is over. Transversally, David is unable to accept that Niki no longer wants to be in a relationship with him, and feels emasculated at her going steady with some stranger from her work who doesn’t even get along with the children. The kids are the central theme of The Killing of Two Lovers, a steadfast thematic element that not only echoes through the vast countryside, but anchors our protagonists each and every choice. Regardless of how hard Niki tries to be transactional of how she handles the growing wedge in between the titular lovers, it’s impossible not to pity the dangerously desperate David. The final pillar to David’s starting advantage in the eyes of the audience, is how Machoian showcases the 10 street small-town of Kanosh, Utah with every background character knowing and liking David. Being shot on location makes the story feel like a naturalistic tight-knit town filled with average everyday people who interact with one another daily.
Through some very wide shots of Kanosh’s natural landscape—from feature debut DoP Oscar Ignacio Jiménez—and an unsettling industrial score, The Killing of Two Lovers creates a palpable sense of both impending dread and of being a voyeuristic passer-by to this town. The way that David and Niki are often framed creates a sense that albeit difficult, we are not supposed to be placing ourselves in either of the individuals’ shoes, but instead to witness like a neighbour peeping out the window or a silent listener overhearing the yells next door. The pairing of the rattling train track score with the heavy use of long takes in these open agricultural landscapes allow us to almost sneak into David’s inner machinations; the mundanity of his life, swelling rage, and surroundings outside his family truly showcasing just how much he needs them to remain a part of his routine. In large part owed to Peter Albrechtsen’s unnerving sound design, there are a handful of moments where you feel the narrative may shift from indie familial drama into the psychological thriller realm. While not necessarily intense, the film succeeds in making you question whether one rash decision may lead to an entire chain of regrettable unfortunate events: like in life, but especially in parenting.
The Killing of Two Lovers is surely on fellow indie cinema fans radars—with a nice added boost from NEON—but those who also take a fancy to familial dramas and parental narratives will find aspects to enjoy and possibly relate to here. The Manchester by the Sea crowd might look into this. While I don’t see myself rewatching this one, nor purchasing it, I do not regret my time spent viewing, thinking, and writing on it. A confident solo feature debut with naturalistic and believable performances in an authentic setting. I mentioned earlier that the story could have benefited from some more notable actors, and I meant this in the sense of it being able to really flesh out some emotions and feelings of empathy. But the largely unknown cast grants the advantage of us almost taking this plot for what it is at face value, as if we were just watching these rural families live out their normal everyday lives.
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. To my editor’s chagrin, I typically like to go over my word count in discussing films. Most if not all my reviews are originally written within an hour of finishing the film, so that I can deliver an unfiltered, raw, genuine, in the moment, thought process to you. My taste is eclectic (both in film and music), but I have a strong preference for 80s Cult/Sleaze films, Sci-fi, War, Chambara, Fantasy, and Psychological Thrillers. Thanks for giving us a read and I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit! Long live physical media; long live VHS. Remember: watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.