Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Joshua Minsoo Kim Featured Film Horizon Line

The Killing of Two Lovers | Robert Machoian

May 13, 2021

With The Killing of Two Lovers, Robert Machoian constructs a difficult balance between simple-yet-impressive visual techniques and more frenzied audio compositions to drive an underwhelming narrative.

Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers begins with a close-up of David’s (Clayne Crawford) face. His stern and concentrated look belies the sadness eating at him, something only hinted at by the sound of his quavering breath. The film quickly cuts to a shot of a couple on a bed, and then to David pointing a revolver at them. What prevents any blood from being shed is the sound of a toilet being flushed in an adjacent bathroom, which in hindsight we understand as coming from one of his children. As David jumps out a window and runs back to his car, a soundtrack of ominous, creaking metal and other non-diegetic sounds establish the quiet tension that suffuses the film. The aforementioned couple is revealed to be his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi) and a new man she’s seeing named Derek (Chris Coy). The premise is simple: David and Niki are in the throes of a potential divorce, and while they’ve agreed to see other people, he’s unable to deal with this emotionally. The opening scene proves to capture the rest of the film well: this is a movie that continually teases violence — be it physical or emotional — maintaining its momentum by allowing us to witness David on the verge of a breakdown.

Machoian is, more than anything, an economical director. He ensures that every shot has a perceptible tranquility. Most of the film is composed of relatively still long takes, the colors are washed out, and conversations are always meant to serve a purpose in driving the simple narrative forward. His greatest trick is in using the 4:3 aspect ratio to his advantage, allowing for the compact space to build on the intensity and drama that bubbles underneath, adeptly making any scene stressful. While he generally reserves close-ups for the tensest moments, more than halfway through the film he allows for a frustrating debacle between David and Niki to play out as a wide shot in a front yard; he allows the suffocating bitterness to fester and grow outward into non-interior spaces, to be palpable in the air and not just people’s faces. This ramping up is crucial for the film’s climax, which is the only scene shot in 1.66:1 and that features David, Niki, and Derek working out their intersecting relationships. While the film’s visuals are intelligently put together, its use of non-diegetic sound and other audio effects to capture David’s anger are heavy-handed and unnecessary given Machoian’s naturalistic shooting style. At worst, they reveal how little there is here in terms of characterization. And ultimately, every person onscreen is one-dimensional if they’re not perfunctory. This feels especially true of the film’s final scene, which opts for a muddied message and safe conclusion. Had it ended one scene earlier, Machoian would have better captured David’s questionable likability and flawed personhood, and the way he’s destructively impacted everyone around him.

Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 2.