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The Killing of Two Lovers: Slow Burn Family Drama

The Killing of Two Lovers leans too heavily into mumblecore to be fully engaging, but inspired direction keeps it interesting.

How far would you go to keep your family together? This question, and other versions of it, have served as a point of inspiration for filmmakers for decades. From the delicate politics of divorce shown in Kramer vs. Kramer and Marriage Story to the tragedy-laden stories of Waves and Ordinary People, we have seen an overall uptick in films depicting families in crisis, and it’s not hard to see why. These types of stories generally invite both showy and nuanced performances, while touching on themes that all but guarantee awards consideration come winter. The latest addition to this distinctive subgenre is Robert Machoian’s solo directorial debut The Killing of Two Lovers, an engrossing but underdeveloped slow burn with a distinctive style.

From the very first scene, The Killing of Two Lovers boldly establishes how the story will be told. After a shocking act of violence is narrowly avoided, we are properly introduced to David (Clayne Crawford), a father who is currently separated from his wife (Sepideh Moafi) and children, only able to spend time with them in the brief minutes before the school bus whisks them away. While clearly dissatisfied with the situation, there is little he can do but make arrangements for the odd day out and stolen conversation. It’s a very dialogue-heavy film, with Machoian’s script leaning heavily into the conventions of mumblecore, a decision that proves to be the film’s greatest weakness. Though the film carefully plots out David’s gradual descent into desperation and its effect on those he loves; the choice to depict his arc through drawn-out conversations quickly loses its effectiveness after the first act. While the dialogue is convincingly naturalist, perhaps sharper dialogue that explicitly communicated the character’s thoughts would have made for a more engaging watch.

loud and clear reviews The Killing of Two Lovers
The Killing of Two Lovers (NEON)

Even if the execution of the story is misguided, the technical elements, directing, and acting make up for any weaknesses in the screenplay. Both Crawford and Moafi understand the nuances of their characters and turn what could be exaggerated caricatures into real people. Another surprising standout comes from Avery Pizzuto, whose performance as the oldest daughter expertly straddles the line between stereotype and instigator as her adolescent outbursts push the parents closer and closer to the edge. Even Chirs Coy, who has a small part as Moafi’s possible boyfriend appears to understand exactly what his role in the story is and executes it adequately. It’s a prime example of a cast completely understanding a script and doing their best job to maximize the great parts while minimizing its weaknesses.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of The Killing of Two Lovers, and the aspect most worthy of praise. is its unique style. While the story itself is a slow burn that is light on plot, Machoian keeps you on the edge of your seat for all 84 minutes. The cinematography by Oscar Ignacio Jiménez frames the film in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio that directly clashes with the northern setting of the story, taking wide-open vistas that would be at home in a Kelly Reichardt or Chloé Zhao film and framing them in a matter similar to the way Yorgos Lanthimos frames his sterile environments. It’s a very peculiar blend of styles that normally wouldn’t mesh well together but end up enchasing what little tension the script provides. Also worthy of praise is the sound design by Peter Albrechtsen, which is both grating and immersive in equal measure, carefully choosing what sounds to accentuate and which to eliminate completely. The result is a film that looks and sounds like a major Hollywood production while on a shoestring budget of 32,000$.

Despite the stellar technical aspects and fiercely dedicated performances from its talented cast, The Killing of Two Lovers never manages to escape from the shortcomings of the script. It constantly teases us with the possibility of violence yet balks when given the opportunity. Even the film’s resolution feels a little too perfect, though perhaps it alludes to the killing of the lovers that the title implies. While both the premise and technical execution are solid, viewers will undoability be left wanting just a little bit more by the time the film abruptly cuts to its credits.

The Killing of Two Lovers opens In Select US Theaters & On VOD May 14, 2021.

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