By Leah Greenblatt
May 14, 2021 at 03:56 PM EDT
The Killing of Two Lovers
Credit: Neon

It sounds like a murder ballad and begins with a loaded gun, but The Killing of Two Lovers (in theaters and on demand Friday) is a movie largely made of open space, careful silences, and small gestures: a low-key stunner out of last year's Sundance that makes the most of its micro budget and stark Utah setting.

Married straight out of high school and now the overtaxed parents of four, David (former Lethal Weapon star Clayne Crawford) and Nikki (The Deuce's Sepideh Moafi) are trying their best to navigate the murky rules of estrangement and do what's best for the kids. In the meantime, they've agreed to a trial separation that includes dating other people — an idea that David sees only as stopgap before (he hopes) their inevitable reunion, but Nikki embraces.

The young ones seem mostly oblivious; their eldest, though (Avery Pizzuto), is enough of a teenager to hate them for it. She wants what David wants: all the sad ugly stuff undone, and the family reunited. Nikki is less forthcoming about her own feelings, though the man she's been spending time with, Derek (Chris Coy) seems happy to make his claims on her aggressively known.

Though the script, by writer-director Robert Machoian (The Minors, God Bless the Child), has a few lumps in it, his long unbroken takes allows each scene to breathe and bloom, all the unspoken hurts and subtext etched across his actors' faces (and even a few sneaky moments of humor too). And the physical violence, when it does come, feels both earned and authentic in a way that conflicts on screen rarely do.

Some of the supporting players, understandably, have an amateur feel, but Crawford's David is quietly devastating: a man who will do whatever it takes — sing a shaky ballad to his sweetheart in the car, build a rocket, pick up a gun — to keep what he loves. With his proud, wounded performance at the center, the film's raw vérité style and unforced naturalism do more than set a mood; in its best moments, it breaks your heart. Grade: B+

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