Jackie (Katy O’Brian) has an incredible physique, and the word primarily applies in the Bruce Banner sense. This young amateur bodybuilder from goodness-knows-where is making her way to a contest in Las Vegas, sleeping rough under bridges that double as pull-up rigs at dawn, as the sun heaves itself over the horizon for another day’s graft.
Exactly what is behind her on the road is unclear, but her body-sculpting feels less like a product of vanity than bloody-mindedness: reshape your body, her thinking seems to run, and fate will have no option but to follow suit. She’s a self-built woman, and the structural work is there for all to see. When she flexes, the veins around her biceps creak and tighten like guy ropes.
She is one half of the central twosome in the jaw-dropping new film from Britain’s Rose Glass, whose 2019 debut, the Scarborough-set psychological thriller Saint Maud, marked her out as a director to watch. Love Lies Bleeding is exactly the sort of follow-up some of us had everything crossed she’d come up with – one that grins: hey, now you’re watching, get a load of this. Co-starring a superb Kristen Stewart as Lou, the manager of the tatty New Mexico gym where Jackie fatefully stops to work out one afternoon, it’s a scoff-it-down dollop of outrageous gourmet pulp – part William Friedkin, part Nicolas Winding Refn, but shot through with the same unique and peculiar glint of ambiguity that made Saint Maud such an exciting work.
Glass is working with a notably starrier cast here, but there’s no sense of a young Brit kowtowing to Hollywood: she has Ed Harris play Lou’s vile gun-running father Lou Sr as an almost Lynchian grotesque, complete with sex-pest glasses and a balding mullet that resembles a flattened Pekingese. After falling for the taciturn Lou, but also sleeping with her hideous brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco) for a job, Jackie becomes embroiled in this family’s gruesome, generation-spanning psychodrama, and dead bodies soon start to pile up.
The film has a touristic quality often found in European directors’ early trips to America, with locations like diners, firing ranges and serviced apartments exerting a sleazily alien allure mirrored in Clint Mansell’s whistling sci-fi score and the frequent night-time vistas of star fields. And the Vegas bodybuilding tournament itself, meanwhile, is quite literally Showgirls on steroids. Back in New Mexico, Lou tempts Jackie into injecting the drugs to boost her chances of victory, and while the drugs also do wonders for their sex life, they cause Jackie’s grasp of reality to slacken, and the film’s along with it.
Audiences will either be on board for the third act’s provocations or not – but while a more seasoned director would have probably skipped, say, the homage to a certain 1950s psychosexual sci-fi classic, Love Lies Bleeding’s total lack of filter is its greatest strength. It’s the sort of film you instinctively want to tuck under a mattress: hot, nasty and mouth-wateringly disreputable, this is cinema with nothing to lose.
Playing at the Sundance Film Festival. In UK cinemas from April 19