Courtesy of NEON

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The Killing of Two Lovers opens with a moment of heightened tension. A man stands in a bedroom where two people are fast asleep. He points a pistol at both of them, then ultimately decides to spare them both, leaving through the window. Over the course of the film, writer and director Robert Machoian answers the unresolved questions from this scene. His title is a slight bait and switch—it’s more of a drama than a thriller—though his command of tone and character make up for the misdirection. As these flawed characters argue and negotiate toward a happier life, the uncompromising depiction of their lives helps us to understand the compromises they make with each other.

After David (Clayne Crawford) decides against a double murder, he hurries back to the modest, borderline-rundown house where he lives. This happens without dialogue, so the first lines are shocking: He has a gentle conversation with his ailing father (Bruce Graham) about dinner. The conversation is loose and friendly, which raises questions about David’s overall mental state. He is in the middle of a trial separation with his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), and it is not going well. She’s sleeping with someone else, Derek (Chris Coy), and it will not shock you to learn that these two are the lovers in question. Most of the film covers David’s attempts to preserve some routine with his children, or to rekindle his marriage, except none go according to plan. David is only humiliated further, until he feels he has few options left.

The landscapes and exteriors are key to the desperation shared among the characters. Machoian and cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez shoot in a forgotten, barren part of the American West where a sense of loneliness seeps into everyone’s bones. The Killing of Two Lovers drains the area of infrastructure and institutions—the scenes are empty roads, houses far apart, and snow-capped mountains in the distance—until family is what matters most.

This need for family is never clearer than during the strained, awkward conversations between David and Nikki. She still has affection for him, even as she tries to establish boundaries. One storytelling masterstroke is that the film never pins down why the couple split, though we know from the opening scene that David can be erratic, even dangerous. This lack of specific detail is what gives each scene the illusion of free will; you never quite know what the actors might do or say. They all find the right combination of honesty and ambiguity, then stick with it.

Music often augments a film’s mood, and this film’s fractured approach to music is meant to provoke genuine unease. There is some jagged, experimental music, but the most common refrain is a loop of a car engine wheezing back to life. Perhaps Machoian meant the sound to represent David’s inner turmoil; the pressure builds in him as he devotes a lot of energy to saying the right thing or winning his family back, and the music is a supporting monologue. Some scenes where he lashes out—at one point, he beats up a boxing mannequin—have no soundtrack. We understand exactly what he is feeling, and without the empathetic quality of music, his rage is almost pathetic.

Some moviegoers may find The Killing of Two Lovers frustrating. As mentioned above, the title is not literal, though it does refer to something specific. Its actors avoid histrionics, opting to speak in shorthand or whispers. This creates a sense of realism, though the scenes are unusually tense. In other words, this film could alienate genre fans, who may look for thrills, and the regular arthouse crowd, who might prefer a drama without too much suspense, in equal measure. That only speaks to its ultimate strength. The destination matters more than the journey for David and Nikki, to the point where, if Nikki learned about the opening scene, we can sort of imagine why she might still forgive him. That is no small filmmaking feat, and to his credit, Machoian never makes a big deal of it.

The Killing of Two Lovers is available on demand beginning May 14.