The Other Man
By Susannah Gruder

The Killing of Two Lovers
Dir. Robert Machoian, U.S., NEON

In the wide-open expanses of the Utah flatlands, sounds don’t pop, they echo, carrying across the valleys toward the distant mountains powdered with snow. And yet in Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers, set in the tiny town of Kanosh nestled beneath Utah’s Pahvant mountain range, every noise is as sharp as razor blade, and equally as menacing. While there’s nothing but hills and sky as far as the eye can see, we’re sonically sequestered in a crawl space where the volume’s turned up too loud. Machoian paints a portrait of a man experiencing the dissolution of his marriage by inviting us to see—and hear—the world from his perspective. His mind is like metal hurtling through space as he struggles to accept that things may be over, and that his wife is sleeping with someone else. We hear the sound of a gun cocking or a car door slamming as he drives through his small town, reflections of his unstable thoughts rather than anything resembling reality. It’s a rather one-sided look at a separation, rejecting the duality of films like Marriage Story or La Notte, which give each party a chance to be heard. Yet while we’re only shown his point of view, it’s perhaps an even more realistic view of a breakup. After all, even if there’s always two sides to every story, we can only ever experience one.

Kanosh, which has a population of about 700 and a diameter of roughly three avenues, is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone’s business and the only area to hide is in an open field outside the city limits. Motivated by his upbringing in the close-knit town of King City in California’s Salinas Valley, Machoian tends to focus his films on the everyday dramas of small-town residents. God Bless the Child (2015) follows five siblings (his own children, three of whom he also casts as the couple’s young sons in Two Lovers) who are left alone for a day in Davis, California, and 2018’s When She Runs was inspired by the large number of competitive female runners in Utah.

His new film charts a week in the life of a couple, David and Nikki (Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi) going through a trial separation. David’s moved out of the picturesque house they shared with their four children and in with his ailing dad down the street. He does manual labor around town clad in charmingly worn-out workers’ overalls, his mop of grown-out curls making him a dead ringer for Casey Affleck (he possesses the same kind of dejected energy Affleck displayed in Manchester by the Sea.) Nikki, meanwhile, is a level-headed paralegal entertaining the idea of law school at the suggestion of her boss.

A professor of photography at Provo’s Brigham Young University, Machoian happened upon Kanosh when helping a friend with a project, and he was immediately inspired to start crafting the story of a marriage on the brink of collapse. The filmmaker embraces the emptiness of the landscape—you can sense that David is traversing the same street back and forth, a dead-end town stretching out until oblivion. The muted palette only adds to the sense of simplicity, giving us license to color the narrative with our own readings.

Machoian doesn’t spend time explaining why David and Nikki split up, contributing to the idea that David may not fully understand either. It’s a film built on moments of tension and release more than plot and dialogue, a good representation of how muddled things can get, and how useless words can be, when a relationship is in jeopardy. The film threatens to live up to its name from the very first scene, as David is seen standing over Nikki’s bed with a gun in his hand as she sleeps soundly next to another man. But this energy is put away and stored for later use, as David decides against a double homicide when he hears a toilet flush, a reminder of his children in the next room. This tension doesn’t dissipate, it only mounts, as David undergoes one injury to his ego after another.

David’s anger is not so much at the break-up of his marriage, as at the loss of his wife to another man. The two agreed that they could see other people, and while David can accept this on a rational level, he seems to reject it almost physically, his all-American masculinity innately opposed to the idea of a woman having multiple partners. While there’s no mention of Mormonism despite the film’s locale, the fact that polyamory is largely accepted—for men—in the state hangs over the film.

Following his decision to put down the gun, David follows Nikki’s bedfellow, Derek (Chris Coy), as he goes to the general store. “Would you hit me?” he asks David. His cup is outstretched, referring to the pot of coffee he’s holding in his hand, but the words could be interpreted as an invitation to an act of violence. David ends up following him in his car, gun in hand, until he’s again thwarted by his children—he gets a text and turns around to pick them up for school.

After asking her for marriage advice, his neighbor Mrs. Staples tells him, “Love is a feeling, and feelings, they move in, they move out. You and Nikki will figure it out.” She clearly hasn’t read The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck’s 1978 spiritual self-help classic, which clearly states that love is not a feeling, it is an act of will, specifically “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.” It appears that Mrs. Staples, and perhaps David, are confusing love with cathexis, which Peck defines as the relationship between a person and an object that is important to them. “Once cathected, the object, commonly referred to as a ‘love object,’ is invested with our energy as if it were a part of ourselves.” David has certainly experienced cathexis with Nikki, but it’s unclear if he’s experienced love. The latter is, to be fair, the far more mysterious and challenging of the two.

Even as David may seek to possess Nikki, it’s she who seems to wield most of the power. And while the viewer might see her through David’s eyes as a manipulative, uncaring wife who would deign to have, in his words, “a fuckfest” with Derek while he’s out with the kids, the perspective gets somewhat murky if one considers Peck’s more classical definitions. Does David love her or simply want to own her? Does Nikki want to escape from under his grip? Much is left up for interpretation, which is especially complicated during an extended scene in which David and Nikki attempt to go on a date. After receiving a text, Nikki requests that they stay close by in case their teenage daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto) has any issues watching the three younger boys. Heartbroken, David submits to her and they circle around the block in the car to give the impression that they’ve left. The camera zeroes in on each of their faces in the film’s tight 4x3 ratio as they sit in the darkened car, awkwardly exchanging pleasantries like mere acquaintances. Suddenly they both see a male figure walk up to the house to drop off flowers. Did Nikki know Derek would show up? Who was the text message from? As seen through David’s perspective, Nikki is a rather flat character—the love object and betrayer. But in this scene, we start to wonder if it’s she who’s pulling all the strings.

The film’s climax features an unexpected outburst of violence followed by an even more baffling coda, which seemingly restores order to the family unit. By the end of the film, Machoian devises a strange return to normal, the family walking around a hardware store, bonds of love restored. “Can I help you guys with anything?” a handsome young shop clerk asks as they examine the washing machines. A banal moment becomes tinged with the slightest bit of drama. Perhaps David feels emasculated shopping for household appliances. Perhaps he wonders if his wife is eyeing the salesman. Perhaps neither of these are true. It’s a provocative bookend to a film that opens with such deceptive definitiveness. After the ever-present threat of romantic apocalypse, it’s a stinging return to marital balance, if not bliss.