Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers opens on the quaking face of its central father David, played with aimless despair by Clayne Crawford, as he stands over the sleeping bodies of his estranged wife and her new boyfriend. He aims a gun at them with unsure and impulsive hands, but quickly sneaks off and runs to his father’s home, seemingly terrified of the violence he was considering. As we watch his next days, horrific personal violence always looms as an option, like the fog that hangs over his desolate mountainside town.
But what Machoian leaves us with is an understanding of his main character that’s even more sparse than the landscape that surrounds him. David has split with his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) and feigns amiability to the terms of their trial period, but is enraged at every turn. He gets angry navigating his time with their children, he gets angry after his mandated date nights with Nikki, and he gets angry at any sight of her boyfriend on the horizon. He takes that mounting aggression out on a boxing dummy (first with his fists and later with his pistol), but even at the film’s slim length, it begins to feel like it’s being taken out on the audience.
Being placed inside such claustrophobic rage wouldn’t present such a near unbearable problem if we were offered some dimension to David’s state of mind. The Killing of Two Lovers is neither intuitive of or interested in the psychology that produces a man like David, nor does it seem to be all that interested in something deeper than the surface of his frustrations. As a study of masculinity shattered when ideals of nuclear units are broken, it accepts the face value of David’s situation. Even tender shades, like David’s attempts to connect to his teenage daughter or timidly singing a song he’s written about Nikki, fall flat with cliches. But as a study of an average man’s capacity for violence when faced with despair, such flatness becomes deeply frustrating. For the film, it’s simply natural that violence be a regular consideration for David; to not explore why that is true feels partly irresponsible, but mostly dull.
Machoian attempts to churn tension with long takes and a paranoid soundscape, and the film is nothing if not meticulously crafted. But the film’s narrative is never as formidable as his devices, making for a jarring distance between his brooding mise en scène and underdeveloped characterization. There is promise in the director’s ability to hone a mood from storytelling table scraps, but human drama isn’t built on tone alone. In this case, it results in a film that leaves a different taste in your mouth than it thinks it does, one that makes for a different kind of horrific end than promised by the threat of violence. An exercise in futility, but not defined enough to be called nihilistic or even condemning, The Killing of Two Lovers can’t vibe its way into an interesting character study.