Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers can be considered as NEON’s answer to Noah Baumbach’s 2019 Oscar-winning Marriage Story, in which a recently separated couple (Clayne Crawford & Sepideh Moafi) struggles to keep their family together. The father, David (Crawford), wants to come back to Nikki (Moafi). Still, she has been seeing someone else (Chris Coy), which angers her children, especially the teenage daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto), who believes her father has given up on them and isn’t fighting to stay together. It’s a simple film, running at only 85 minutes, but packs an incredible emotional punch with one of the year’s best acting performances from Clayne Crawford.
Its simplicity is exacerbated by its presentation. It is shot at a modest 1.33:1 aspect ratio (which jumps to 1.66:1 during one sequence) to create a boxed-in feeling that retains the characters’ main emotions. David doesn’t want to give up on their marriage, even though they agree to see other people during the separation, but it feels as if Nikki doesn’t care about him or his children, which creates tension for the couple as they are desperately finding reasons to stay together. David loves his family so much he’ll even wake up his children in the middle of the night to tell him the worst jokes you’ve ever heard, as he no longer spends any time with them and must find new ways to keep them interested in him. This is one of the film’s saddest sequences because we feel David’s desperation for spending as much time as he can with his children, but he isn’t able to because Nikki controls the house and his children, whereas David is forced to live with his father, having nothing to clamor for. Crawford is excellent as David and gives his best-ever performance by expressing his moral anguish through solitude and a confined performance through its aspect ratio. The audience feels his raw power and longing to stay with Nikki, but she keeps distancing himself from David, culminating in the best scene of the film shot at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The drama progressively builds up towards that 1.66:1 sequence–where we see what’s wrong with the couple first-hand: they don’t want to listen to one another because they don’t trust each other. Their relationship is fueled by toxicity, as Nikki and David want complete control over their children and love life while never listening to their needs. They think their relationship will work if they don’t grow and continue to live in their own bubble, but soon realize that it’ll take evolving, growing, listening to one another to make it work, and not just for them but their kids also. The film is immaculately shot by Oscar Ignacio Jimenez, who terrifically understands how to retain the purest form of emotion possible inside a closed-up frame. When the aspect ratio [lightly] opens up, it’s a sign that the audience should pay attention closer than they initially did during the movie’s quieter scenes because its dramatic tension will now reach a boiling point. Without revealing anything, it’s one of the best-acted scenes of the year, staged in a staccato-like rhythm, until it starts to become a caricature.
I’m not sure the final scene (after its dramatic tension) was the best way to end the film, as The Killing of Two Lovers quickly finishes in a silly, almost anticlimactic ending that removed every ounce of emotion it’s been building up towards the two lead protagonists and their own struggles at keeping their family afloat. While the acting from Crawford & Moafi are phenomenal–as they beautifully (and tragically) showcase their own personal problems, which has drifted their marriage apart, other performances are quite silly, especially Avery Pizzuto’s Jess who isn’t one bit convincing in her role. She’s supposed to tell David how much he needs to fight for her and how being in a new family, with a total stranger, is not what she wants, but her line delivery is so tepid it almost feels like an unintentional comedy. The same thing happens during its end–which strangely starts to become S. Craig Zahler in nature, with unnecessary brutal, bizarre violence and cartoonish gestures from Crawford, who now seems to be in a different film than what he initially starred in.
It’s a strange way to end an otherwise emotionally impactful film with some of the best acting you’ll see all year–with Clayne Crawford magnifying every ounce of screen time he is in, pulling you in his quest for redemption, and not just in the film but personally as well. It’s not an easy film to watch, but one that will surely stick with you as the credits roll, whether you liked it or not. Some will loathe its presentation, and others will admire it as a true stroke of genius. I, on the other hand, was bemused by its overall presentation but found it incredibly impactful mainly due to its performances and cinematography. Take it as you will.