I am a fan of fathers and husbands who fight for their families, especially when I am not sure what I would do, were I in their situations. In The Killing of Two Lovers (2021; for rent on Amazon and other streaming services), we are introduced to that father and husband, David (Clayne Crawford), holding a gun and standing over the bed where his wife and her lover are sleeping.
The first time I watched it, because of the editing, I wasn’t sure whether or not David had actually pulled the trigger. Nor was I sure whether the film was going to proceed in chronological order. Are we entering the story at the beginning or the end? Is this the cinematic device where we see what happens at the end and then go back to find out how we got there? (Thankfully, it is not that, which makes the title a better kind of puzzle.)
But those questions end up subordinate to the main question of the film: what kind of a person is David? The scene with David and his revolver, about to pull the trigger, is juxtaposed with the next scene, David caring for his aging father. These two opening scenes set us up for a film that is not as much about action as it is about the internal struggle between two kinds of intention or motivation. Will one “side” or the other win out in the end? Which kind of man will he be? What kind of man should he be? Thematically, though not narratively, it has some commonality with Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter.
Despite our questions, most of which fall outside the scope of the movie, the story itself is fairly straight-forward. Because of that, the climax of the film contains a genuine shock, for which I was unprepared. What is interesting—and relatively obvious, though I only noticed it the second time through—is that the aspect ratio clues us in to the significance.
For most of the film, in spite of the broad, open, even barren, space of the setting (mountains, prairies, farmland) the framing of the picture is claustrophobic. At multiple points, the camera narrows in so that people are even cut out of the frame. There is almost a struggle for breath in many scenes, which increases the tension. It is a carefully constructed tension, as David, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), Derek (the magnificently arrogant Chris Coy), and the other people with whom David interacts are positioned primarily in three positions: right, center, or left; now spaced far apart, now filling the frame. All of this is drawn taut by the soundtrack, which seems to consist of slammed doors, clicking gun hammers, and accelerating engines, as if each moment is stretched until the film reaches the breaking point.
But when we arrive at the climax—which I am not going to spoil, even with a warning—there is a point, hidden sonically by the slamming of a car door, at which the aspect ratio suddenly changes. And then another edit hides the change back, leading to a single long take containing one of the most vividly acted expressions of shame and pain that I have seen.
In the end, though I had many of the same questions as I did at the beginning, the short running time and abrupt ending preserves both our doubts and our expectations. We don’t know what’s going to happen after, but we do know that David has held fast to his marriage vows and his love for his children, even bearing shame for their sake. I would like to think I would be able to do the same.
On their podcast, Tim and Jay discuss further The Killing of Two Lovers with filmmaker Thomas Torrey. Look for that episode Monday at saintsandcinema.com