Love Lies Bleeding

When we first meet Lou (Kristen Stewart), she’s elbow deep unclogging an old toilet at Crater’s Gym, the needy Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov, "Manchester by the Sea") taking an overly enthusiastic interest in her progress.  The sinewy, mullet-haired gym manager who smokes while listening to tapes about quitting is surrounded by men pumping iron, but they know her preference when Jackie (Katy O'Brian, "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania"), a body building stranger, catches her eye in “Love Lies Bleeding.”

Laura's Review: A-

Cowriter (with Weronika Tofilska)/director Rose Glass’s ("Saint Maud") gritty, sweaty, lesbian pulp neo noir is the very opposite of a sophomore slump, her second film, also about a relationship between two women, a confident, mind-blowing, American revenge tale laced with sex, violence and even a few laughs.  With a cast that includes the Oscar nominated Stewart in a role that seems tailor made for her, a breakout turn by a mesmerizing O’Brian and corrupt puppet master Ed Harris as Lou Sr., looking like the Cryptkeeper incarnate, “Love Lies Bleeding” packs a powerful punch.

Jackie’s introduction is also disconcerting, the young woman engaging in rough, doggy-style sex in the back of a Camaro.   JJ (Dave Franco) offers to hook her up with a job if she shows up at the address he hands her and, after spending the night under a bridge, she walks into what she learns is a gun club owned by Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), a chilling, bug-collecting creep.  What she won’t know until after spending a passionate night with Lou is that her new boss is her new lover’s estranged father and that JJ is a domestic abuser married to Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone).  And when Beth is once again so badly beaten by her husband she lands in the hospital, Jackie, jacked up on the free steroids Lou’s been supplying her, shows her devotion by ‘setting things right,’ leaving one hell of a mess to clean up.

Glass clues us in on the evil lurking in this small New Mexican town with her very first shot, Ben Fordesman’s ("Saint Maud") camera peering into a deep, dark, bottomless chasm which suddenly blooms with thousands of stars, the shot flipping around to reveal the gym named after it under a night sky.  That chasm will come into play when Lou tries to solve two problems at once at the site that haunts her own past.  But Lou has several obstacles in her path including the lovesick Daisy appearing at just the wrong moment; the now irrational Jackie’s determination to get to a Las Vegas body building competition when her leaving is sure to be noticed and dear old dad’s willingness to put a  hit on his own daughter rather than face his own exposure.

The English director has a real feel for the underside of the American dream, Lou Sr. living in a Cantera Stone palace complete with tennis court while Lou lives in the type of transient apartment called Casa something-or-other, each situated in wide open spaces.  Roads unfurl into endless horizons, like the one Jackie hitchhikes to Vegas, shown by Fordesman from her hallucinatory perspective where everyone’s pupils are cartoonishly dilated.  While Jackie’s body is objectified by his camera and her own poses, sound design magnifying muscle growth, close-ups accentuate saliva, sweat, blood and bruising, vomit thankfully relegated to long shots.  Clint Mansell's dark, electronic score accentuates the film's malevolent undertone.

The cast is gripping, Stewart’s lanky gym rat softening at the very sight of O’Brian’s rippling physique.  When these two say ‘I love you,’ you believe them, their physical hunger for each other palpable, even if their actions sometimes belie those words.  Harris is quiet malignancy, a coiled snake.  Baryshnikov, all big eyes, greasy hair and stained teeth, is joy barbed with jealousy as a hair in Lou and Jackie’s ointment.  Franco is sleaze personified, Malone delusional as his adoring wife.

With “Love Lies Bleeding,” Glass goes so big, she almost tips into crazy – maybe she even does, but she makes it all work, right down to that last uncomfortable laugh.  It’s a heady rush of a film.

A24 releases "Love Lies Bleeding" in select theaters on 3/8/24, expanding on 3/15/24.