dir: Robert Machoian
The Killing of Two Lovers, as a title, doesn’t sound that ambiguous. I mean, any reasonable person with eyeballs who reads English would read that title and assume that this film has a story about the killing of two lovers.
It is not, however, the whole sentence. It is somewhat deceptive. It is the beginning of a sentence, rather than the end of a sentence. But it’s still not clear whether it’s the beginning of a story or the end of one.
When the film begins, a bearded distraught chap (Clayne Crawford) with a gun, stands in a bedroom. We see two sleeping people’s feet poking out of the bed. He raises the gun towards them, but then stops when he hears a toilet flushing in the house. He retreats, sneaks out a window, and runs to a pick up truck, hides the gun, drives about a block away to another house.
At that house, an aged dad struggles to breath and drink water from a cup, but he’s okay, in the way of all old men. He is father to this angry son, but the son puts on a veneer of normality when speaking with him, doing chores around the place, doting on him. It’s a kind of weary friendliness, concern, all mixed in together.
But only we know apparently that it’s a veneer. When he ventures out again, it’s in pursuit of the other newer, shinier pick up truck that was parked in front of the house he was standing in with murderous intent. The male that was on the bed drives away, and our bearded jerk follows him. The camera, in long takes, focuses solely on the driver, so we are seeing little of the world but much of it from his perspective. It is a very small town, the kind small enough where everyone must know each other or else.
The guy stops for a percolated coffee, so our guy stops for a percolated coffee, forced to interact with him in the process, then he follows him again on the road, seemingly with the intent of shooting him as they’re driving, but he’s foiled, again.
These scenes, these tense scenes of potential violence, only we see them. No one else has seen them at this stage, so the world chugs along as it did before.
The distraught chap goes back to the house from the beginning, and we find out that it’s the house he used to live in with his wife and kids, who still live there. He, being David, shepherds his younger kids to the school bus, and eventually sees his daughter walking in the opposite direction to the school. That daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzuto), is very angry, at her parents in general, for separating, but especially angry at her father, for not being able to keep his marriage together, because he is a loser.
Harsh words. The thing is, once the flick shifts from the incredibly tense opening scenes showing that this guy is contemplating murder, perhaps murders (given the title), to the domestic family drama that ensues, David comes across as apologetic and understanding and supportive and all that stuff. He admonishes his daughter for criticising her mother, he explains that because they got married straight out of high school, and with Nikki having 4 kids in succession, it’s brought up some tensions in their lives, of paths unexplored and such, and he defends his estranged wife dating, because that’s what they agreed to.
What a stand up guy, hey? And he absolutely refuses to make their mum Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) into the villain. Flat out refuses. Sure, she’s dating someone new, on the regular, and the guy stays over, and David’s got no chance of something similar in such a small town, but hey, they’ll work things out, won’t they, for the good of the family, yeah?
The thing is, though, we haven’t forgotten the way the movie started. We’re not supposed to. The uneasy and discomforting soundtrack of scrapes, honks, metallic sounds and rumblings won’t really let us forget either. The tight framing, with the 4:3 aspect ratio, which boxes David in, won’t let us forget how trapped he feels either.
You could look at this as a story about a working class, disappointed in life chap being ground down by losing his family and lashing out at those closest to him, unable to move on, unable to hope for more from life because of circumstance and such, but I’m not sure the film is entirely on his side in that respect.
All those elements might be true for the character or the story, but the barely concealed murderous rage in tandem with the seemingly outwardly mature and responsible façade doesn’t paint him in a positive light at all. And nor should it. I am not going to argue that this flick is a complex and nuanced character study, but it does try to show more of a character in such a circumstance that we usually get to see in these kinds of dramas.
We don’t get to see enough from Nikki’s perspective, in terms of how she actually feels about David, because when they’re together mostly we’re hearing her being solicitous and supportive, and saying stuff along the lines of “yeah, we’ll work through this”, but her every action while away from David seems to scream that she is desperate for a new life without him. What transpired before in their relationship we don’t know about, and while he carefully makes sure his impulses under the surface are covered up, we have to think that she has good reason to want him out of her life.
Someone that angry, someone that close to murder, it’s impossible to hide forever, even before what we think is inevitable will happen (because of the opening minutes, and the title), but which doesn’t, necessarily, not the way we think.
For all that, their conversations and arguments are generally civil. This isn’t a divorce drama like Marriage Story or Kramer Vs Kramer, where a former couple shred strips off each other before finally accepting that life must roll one without the other in one’s life, no matter the love that was there initially. Dave and Nikki aren’t tearing away at each other by using the legal system or bringing up shit from the past to score points or wound the other: they’re mostly just expressing concern about their kids, about how to best help them handle this difficult time, and that, always, at some future time, maybe they’ll be back together.
Also, she’s encouraging of whatever steps he’s taking to do something different, she reassures him that he was always a good provider even if work was unstable, and she says nothing that indicates what the deep dissatisfaction of her life is, with him in it. Even after he shakily sings a song he recently wrote, in what sounds horribly awkward, but is actually a great scene, she isn’t overly effusive in her praise, joking that next time he should be accompanied by guitar. She’s supportive, solicitous, hopeful.
If that’s true, then why’s she still seeing this other oily jerk?
And also, is this all a front she’s putting on out of fear? Or are we, complicit in Dave’s mindset since we’re so focussed on him, hearing things only how he wishes they were, rather than how they actually are?
We also get glimpses that Nikki, finally embarking on the career she always wanted, derailed by 4 children, also maybe aspires to law school and maybe getting out of their one horse, two pick up truck town. Some people are content to live their entire lives where they grew up, and others hope for more. At the risk of assuming too much, Dave seems content to never move, never change, never grow. Nikki possibly wants more for her and the kids.
And who can blame her? This argument is a similar argument that at least a billion couples have had over the last 100 thousand years. Almost anyone, whether they’ve had the argument or not, can recognise some of the drivers here; they are recognisably human, independent of culture or ethnicity.
And yet… This is still not a drama about relationship problems. A Separation, the great Iranian film about a couple who still love each other still being torn apart by their differences, and the pressures imposed on them from without and within, now that’s a drama about a couple divorcing.
This here is somewhat more dangerous, way more dangerous. There are many scenes where you wish David was as good a man as he hopes he is, but it is impossible, absolutely impossible to forget what his wounded pride, his shame, his jealousy is bringing up in him, and it could be a result that we see in the media every other week, where feeble men wreck unspeakable horrors upon their own families because they cannot accept that someone doesn’t want to be with them any more.
That is true horror and devastation. This film does not fall prey to such horrors, thankfully. When the violence finally comes, and it’s not David perpetrating it, it actually comes as some kind of blessed surprise. But we still cannot forget the fragility that lurks beneath, the rage usually focused inwards, that could always be directed outward, that resides within men unable to handle the contours of their own lives.
And even if we sympathise with David at any stage, how do we imagine such a man, if he got his heart's wish, and the family were back together, and everyone was happy with their lot in life, how does he reconcile that with the fact that he planned, at some stage, to murder his wife and her lover, and then probably himself? How do you look someone in the eyes like that without self-immolating out of dread and shame?
It’s a remarkably well made film. It’s not like a lot of other films that I’ve seen lately. The performances are uniformly naturalistic and excellent, especially the actors playing the central couple. It’s worrying, it’s disconcerting, but it’s not about The Killing of Two Lovers. The Killing of Two Lovers is about the mindset, the pressures felt, the poor responses exacerbating a situation where a man could be responsible for such a thing, without absolving him of responsibility for any of his actions.
And that makes it more interesting, at least to me.
9 times and I was able to go for the whole review without screaming “toxic masculinity!” three thousand times out of 10
“Bury the evidence!”
-“We raised them right.” – it’s not what it sounds like, it’s about a bouquet of flowers, I swear - The Killing of Two Lovers