Just about every era gets the great end-of-a-marriage movie it deserves, sometimes even more than one. The '70s gave us Scenes From a Marriage and Kramer vs. Kramer; the past decade brought us the Iranian masterpiece A Separation and, more recently, the justly acclaimed Marriage Story.
While it doesn't much resemble any of them, The Killing of Two Lovers belongs in their company. It's a tense, stripped-down, superbly acted drama about a family at a perilous moment of transition. While the movie is never as brutal as its title might suggest, the threat of brutality seems to loom over every frame.
Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi play David and Niki, a small-town Utah couple who have recently agreed to a trial separation. David has moved in with his dad just down the road, close enough to drop in frequently on Niki and their four kids. He's hoping for a reconciliation so that their family can get back together.
But Niki sees the marriage as pretty much over: She and David wed young, right out of high school, and after years of career setbacks, financial difficulties and the many challenges of raising a large family, she's ready to move on. She's already moved on, in fact, with a boyfriend named Derek, played by Chris Coy.
The terms of David and Niki's separation allow them to see other people. But that's small consolation for David, the story's protagonist, who spends much of his time seething with fury. The movie begins with a scene in which you wonder if he really is going to kill the two lovers, whom he finds sleeping one morning in the bed that he used to share with his wife. Later he quietly stalks Derek around town, armed with a pistol that he looks all too willing to use. In both situations, though, his better judgment prevails and he backs down. David is capable of violence, as Crawford's tightly wound performance makes clear. But he also turns out to be more complicated than he appears.