You need to fight for us.
It was supposed to be a surprise—just not on him. David (Clayne Crawford) and Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) are trying to work on their marriage via a separation, but the distance between them can never be too far considering their small town puts his father’s house (where he’s currently staying) just around the corner. So David decides to walk over early before escorting their four kids to the bus-stop. He enters the house, moves to the bedroom, and sees Nikki asleep with another man (Chris Coy‘s Derek). The shock is thus his rather than the children’s; his quiet rage ours once we glimpse the gun in his hand upon entering the scene late. If not for a toilet flush, he might have even pulled the trigger.
With a title like The Killing of Two Lovers, however, this jolt back to reality feels less like a man having second thoughts and more like a stay of execution. Writer/director Robert Machoian knows it too as the sound design moves from the silence of David’s pain to a discordant score consisting of car door slams and revolver cylinder spins. It becomes a soundtrack of this man’s desperation and his inability to find calm. He wants to kill this stranger—David seems to know everyone he passes by name except for Derek—and the only thing that seems to be able to stop him is his family serendipitously getting in the way. If anything can quell his anger, it’s remembering his necessary place within their lives.
How then does David react to a current state of being that’s seemingly at odds with itself? He loves his wife and kids. He wants to be by their side every single second of every single day if they’d let him. But what choice does he have when Nikki asks for space? They’ve been together since they were teenagers and have never known what it’s like to be adults without the other at their hip. She wants to experience that freedom and promises she still loves him enough to work towards a reconciliation, so he begrudgingly agrees. It’s over if he doesn’t. And yet, doesn’t agreeing invite Derek into the equation to ensure it’s over anyway? It’s a complex situation none of them know how to truly solve.
That complexity is the film’s strongest attribute because it guarantees that we cannot hold one party to blame over the other. We assume David is the cause of this rift considering he’s the one who moved out, but that’s not the case. We also assume that Nikki is cheating on him before finding out that “seeing other people” was a stipulation of their separation. They both make mistakes. They both fall prey to their emotions. And they both find themselves selfishly holding onto their own desires to the detriment of the other without being fully cognizant of what those actions cost. Look no further than Jess (Avery Pizzuto is their eldest) to understand. While they continue to tiptoe around a ticking timebomb, she recognizes that it already exploded.
The result is a series of snapshots possessed with uncertainty and despair. Machoian intentionally uses long-takes with static set-ups that compose his full-frame aspect ratio like a viewfinder wherein we’re the missing party. We watch as David walks down the street telling his sons bad jokes and witness as he attempts to inject some fun into their day by setting off rockets in the park because he no longer lives in their house to simply set them off in the backyard. And they are all set so small at the bottom of the screen with the great wide expanse of sky and nature above: tiny humans with big problems caught in an existential crisis only they can climb out from … or dig deeper depending on their response.
And there’s an obvious element of toxic masculinity existing throughout thanks in part to real life (Crawford was fired from “Lethal Weapon” for apparent abusive behavior on-set) and small-town machismo where it concerns the ideas of “ownership” as far as relationships are concerned. Because what does David having that gun in the first scene say besides the fact that he believes Nikki is his and no one else’s? This is only made truer once we know that he agreed she could see other people. So where does his anger truly stem from? Her actions or his own sense of inadequacy? And how far will David go to break what little trust remains if provoked? Will his “fight” only provide Derek sympathy? Or will he be the bigger man?
These questions allow The Killing of Two Lovers to be much more grounded in authentic emotion than you may expect during its opening call for blind vengeance. Machoian even goes so far as to make us wonder if the lovers set to metaphorically “die” are David and Nikki themselves. Because this thing could very well end with the dissolution of their marriage. The odds are actually higher than reconciliation once we see just how close she and Derek have become. Or maybe it has more to do with a line of dialogue from Ms. Staples (Barbara Whinnery) about love never being enough where families are concerned. Perhaps the love that kept David and Nikki together was in need of a transformation into something else to survive.
But these characters’ personalities are on the chopping block too. David’s only chance of earning his family back is by letting go of this “tough guy” persona he wishes to cultivate with a trigger pull. He must be vulnerable with Nikki and the kids. He has to understand what his marital troubles are doing to Jess and let her know that it can’t be fixed with a magic wand (even if the ending wraps things up almost as conveniently). David hates where they’re at, but he knows he’d hate the alternative worse. So he toes the line, stands firm, and lets other versions of his so-called “weakness” (as the “cuckold”) become his strength. Sometimes it’s less about pretending you’re the hero than proving that you aren’t the monster.
 Clayne Crawford and Avery Pizzuto. Courtesy of NEON
 Clayne Crawford, Arri Graham, Ezra Graham and Jonah Graham. Courtesy of NEON
 Clayne Crawford. Courtesy of NEON