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The Killing of Two Lovers is in UK cinemas.

You can hold a gun to your wife and her lovers’ heads and choose not to pull the trigger, The Killing of Two Lovers says, but that doesn’t mean your relationship isn’t dead. Whether weekend dad David (Clayne Crawford) ever works that out is hard to tell, in a film that looks good on the surface but fails to say anything meaningful about its characters or their conflict.

Struggling to cope with the breakdown of his marriage to high-school sweetheart Niki (Sepideh Moafi), and frustrated at leaving the marital home to move back in with his father, David stamps, slams and shoots his way around his rural Utah town full of overwrought emotion. Undetected by Niki or her new partner Derek (Chris Coy) he sneaks into their bedroom and points a gun at them, then at himself. Even after this, he continues trying to win her back and maintain a relationship with his children. It’s a complicated situation, as he explains to his daughter Jesse in the car: he and her mother are trying to work it out, but life hasn’t gone the way they expected.

All around him, the landscape is barren and flat, dusted in a thin layer of snow. It makes for a beautiful, if stark, location, and the slow cinematography shows it off to advantage. There’s very little in-scene editing, with long-take sequences that suit the naturalistic style of dialogue – at times, the kids seem to improvise – and framing, which has shots off-centre and action extending beyond the limits of the screen.

The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)

However, while the film often appears haphazard, everything is deliberately centred on David. His face looms large in extreme close-up; his perspective informs our views into and out of car windows. When he’s angry, his father’s voice is distorted as if underwater, and when he’s agitated, a mechanical clunking churns over the spiky strings on the soundtrack. Everything is skittish and uneasy – leaves clatter across the tarmac at an unnatural volume: this is the world inside David’s head.

None of this was enough to keep me from switching off as the tired tropes and obvious metaphors stacked up. In heavy-handed fashion, David drives a dummy’s torso (“Fucking David,” he mutters, as he lifts it out of his truck) and shoots at it, as if he’s taking aim at an emasculated mirror-image self. And every step of the way, he pulls pages from the ‘wronged man’ playbook. His a cappella rendition of a song he has written for Niki is excruciating, his wall-punching moment eye-roll inducing. It’s painful to watch him turn every polite conversation into a personal attack.

The point is that men who consider themselves wronged are entirely predictable – boring, even. But there’s no counterpoint: almost as predictable as David’s behaviour is the film’s failure to give us Niki. We get no insights into the relationship as it once was, and have no stake in its continuing beyond the movie’s 85 minutes.

The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)

As the title’s impersonal formulation indicates, the film was never likely to say anything new – the killing of two lovers is carried out by an unseen force, the killer is omitted. The film fails to acknowledge that a self-involved partner with an anger-management problem might be responsible.

Perhaps, as with the film’s ambiguity regarding Niki’s choices, we’re meant to assume that both sides are to blame. I never believed that, though, as I watched her forgive his aggression over and over again. Even after he shoots at her, she rushes to comfort him. “I didn’t know what to do… I love you,” he sobs. This precedes an uncomfortable resolution that sees the couple get back together, sliding into the catatonic co-existence of hardware shopping and banality.

It’s here that Two Lovers makes its long-awaited point: that domesticity is death, and there’s more than one way to kill your lover. But domesticity with a violent partner really does mean death for thousands of women every year, and we rarely hear their stories. So, for me, a compelling aesthetic and an edgy score were nothing new. As the credits rolled on another violent man who gets away with it, all I could think was same old, same old. 

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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