A landscape of alienation, isolation and violence

Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi and Chris Coy in the bleak but stunning The Killing of Two Lovers
Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi and Chris Coy in the bleak but stunning The Killing of Two Lovers

The Killing of Two Lovers
Written, produced and directed by Robert Machoian
Starring Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi, Chris Coy, Avery Pizzuto
In cinemas September 16

Russian playwright Anton Chekov, in explaining the idea of theatrical dramatic tension, wrote: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

For Chekov, every dramatic element must have a purpose. The idea is known as “Chekov’s gun”. The Killing of Two Lovers flawlessly demonstrates it.

A gun is introduced in the very first scene, held in the hand of a working-class, estranged husband. From then on we wait with ever-heightening tension for the inevitability of the bullets flying.

And fly they do, but not in a manner and without the result we expect, which is the secret of this intense and stunning film. It breaks every rule in the book.

Having introduced the threat of violence, writer, producer and director Robert Machoian unfolds the narrative in a long, slow burn, allowing the actors to put on stellar performances.

The story is within the standard vernacular of US westerns: lonesome, emotionally inarticulate men with anger-management issues and the women who struggle to understand them. But Machoian tells it in a way you have never seen before.

The internal pressure within lead character David is conveyed by the increasing volume of crunching metallic noises on the soundtrack when he is alone, endlessly driving around town in his Ford pick-up truck. To everyone else he appears to be handling his breakup with his wife well, but the viewer knows what is building.

The landscape around the tiny hamlet of Kanosh, Utah, where all the action takes place, is a visual poetry of isolation. This is the same landscape in which the classic 1950s western Shane was set.

In Shane, the mountains are glorious, representing the greatness of the US values of manliness, family and optimism. Perhaps it is a measure of how far US society has come that these two films make such different uses of the scenery.

Machoian’s characters are dwarfed by the dull-coloured mountains behind them, conveying claustrophobia despite the grandeur.

The film’s soundscape allows us to eavesdrop on distant conversations or gives us the rustling of leaves blowing down an empty street. All is alienation in this world, how can working-class people build happy relationships here?

There are long sequences of conversation filmed in extreme close-up, with that pistol ever-present in the mind of the viewer.

The film's one act of violence is so unexpected that it is shattering. And all the more so because it occurs off-camera.

The film’s final scene contains one brief element, which is visible to the viewer but not to the characters, that suddenly brings the gun and the movie’s title terrifyingly to mind.

With The Killing of Two Lovers Robert Machoian has arrived as a significant film-maker. Watch out for him in the future; he has the capacity to break US cinema out of its rut.