A film bubbling with tension that is always threatening to boil over, The Killing of Two Lovers is a well constructed and effective exercise in maintaining an atmosphere of general uneasiness and apprehension without allowing the film to drift or feel stagnant at any stage.
David (Clayne Crawford) is a man on the edge. Struggling to come to terms with a marriage on the precipice of dissolving while attempting to see his children as often as possible, he devotes himself to trying to bring his family back together as he grapples with the potential loss of something that was once the cornerstone of his life. His wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) attempts to negotiate this new dynamic in their lives in a different way, and their differing perspectives only increase the friction and tension that is palpable throughout.
Writer-director Robert Machoian takes a relatively simple narrative and offers something that highlights the humanity of his characters, and is far less concerned with following any rules of storytelling that would turn this tale towards melodrama. Instead, he basks in the difficult moments, revelling in the stress etched on faces, in the tension caused by painstaking decisions that not only push but definitely go far beyond the boundaries of any sense of morality. Crawford is his partner in this endeavour, and his performance as David is every bit as necessary as the space Machoian gives his characters. It’s a performance that is as much in body movement and expression as it is in dialogue, and Machoian is not afraid of long takes that bask in Crawford’s performance, in his ability to create an uneasy atmosphere by forcing the viewer to feel just as on edge as David does at any given moment. That sense that he could explode from a calm exterior into something altogether darker, allowing the mounting toxicity to consume him is a large part of what makes the film so impactful.
The performances all round are excellent. Moafi brings a different energy to Crawford, offering her own sense of tension as Nikki and exacerbating that feeling that everything is on the precipice, on the very verge of total carnage. Again, the narrative, which is very much a background element in the film as a whole, pales in comparison to the individual scenes, the moments in which the atmosphere of the film is ratcheted up a notch or brought down to a gentle simmer. Either way, the threat never seems too far away, the pain kept barely under the surface.
Coming in at a lean 85 minutes, Machoian doesn’t waste a scene as he carefully balances the atmosphere he creates with clever direction that almost always contributes to it. The long takes that follow David around on his many journeys throughout the film never feel over-indulgent, and serve to make the environment another character, a backdrop through which the anguish of the characters can be revealed. That subtlety and deftness makes this film a great achievement, and one that is not afraid to take time over generating the fear it creates, deliberately stopping short of terror and landing squarely in protracted and carefully curated unease.
That isn’t to say that the narrative isn’t impactful in itself, but its true power comes in the way Machoian exploits what the audience sees and what they have to infer. There are no explanations here, not truly. Those that are given are given in glances and in other subtle, oblique ways that are not dwelled upon but merely treated as another layer on the mounting sense of disquiet that permeates every frame. That focus is admirable, and contributes to a film that earns its deliberate pace, as well as the right not to answer all the questions it poses, whether narratively or otherwise.
The Killing of Two Lovers will be released in cinemas and on Curzon Home cinema on June 4th.