As if to double down on its provocative title, The Killing of Two Lovers opens with the image of a man aiming a loaded pistol at a couple sleeping in their bed. The man’s name, we soon discover, is David and the couple whose murder he’s contemplating are his estranged wife, Nikki, and her new boyfriend, Derek (Chris Coy). 

The scene ends with the movie’s first big act of subversion when David doesn’t kill the two lovers and simply high-tails it back home. The thrumming sound design blaring in the background as he runs — akin to someone repeatedly cocking a revolver while using a high-powered blender — is just to make it clear that David’s having a pretty bad time with things at the moment.

Written, directed, produced and edited by Robert Machoian, Killing is a sparse, Utah-set marital drama with the anxious overtones of a thriller. Indeed, the disarming atmosphere, downtrodden main character and ever-present threat of violence seems to promise a bleak and bloody noir in a backwoods mountain town. That’s not to say the film isn’t at least partly that, but it ultimately has more in common with 2019’s frank divorce saga Marriage Story than an understated revenge parable like 2013’s Blue Ruin. Machoian’s bait-and-switch maneuver will surely irk a segment of those who seek his movie out. Ironically, that same tactic is what elevates Killing as a mostly effective little indie; it has too much empathy for David to turn him into another generic harbinger of vengeance. 

The screenplay, as well as the lead performances from Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi (as David and Nikki, respectively) communicate plenty of backstory regarding their flailing marriage without ever pausing for laborious detail. When David comes by to pick up his three sons for school, he and Nikki’s small talk is amiable but fraught with caution. Every “so how are things with you?” feels like a gauge for whether or not one partner is moving on faster than the other. Both actors use remarkable restraint to convey such a unique and uneasy stage in a breakup. 

Given that both David and the viewer are aware Nikki is seeing someone else (a condition both agreed to as part of their separation), it’s to no great surprise that David wants to reconcile more than his wife does and her agreement to a date night later in the week is likely made out of pity rather than affection. That eventual date night does in fact occur, in a sequence that’s a perfect summation of the movie’s commendable craft and its occasionally amateurish limitations. When Nikki gives a feeble excuse to shorten the length of their date immediately upon getting picked up, David’s defeated look reveals someone grappling with the powerlessness that results from a breakup gaining so much momentum that it’s beyond any one person’s control. 

However, that verisimilitude dissipates whenever a contrived plot development barges in to remind the audience that Killing is a thriller … maybe. The date night concludes with an abrupt interruption from an ancillary character whose presence is absolutely not conducive to a romantic evening out. (No points for guessing who it is, considering there are so few characters in the first place.) This, of course, ratchets the suspense of whether or not David is going to Do Something Crazy.

As Killing sets out to definitively answer whether its title is meant to be taken literally, the dark tonal shifts begin to bump up against the story’s sweeter elements with increasing frequency. An affectionate car-ride conversation with David and his kids is placed alongside an ominous scene of that same man shooting targets in his backyard. Sure, human beings are full of contradictions, but as we get to know David further, it becomes less believable that he’s capable of cold-blooded murder.

Whether or not that comes to fruition would tarnish the experience of watching the film. Suffice to say that while the ending is certainly unexpected, it also can’t help but feel a bit jarring. Killing features a small handful of crucial moments that stretch credulity, and this is easily the most glaring of them, hinging on a character decision that would have required more deliberate set-up earlier on in order to work. It’s not enough to sink the whole ship, though; in fact, Machoian is such a talented filmmaker that the sense of authenticity inhabiting his film is compelling enough on its own that the story itself can simply feel unnecessary.