When a magnificently gnarled Ed Harris, wearing stringy Argus Filch hair and chomping on a horned beetle in a moment of psychotic rage is far from the weirdest thing in a movie, you know you’re in for a wild experience. That’s what Brit director Rose Glass delivers in Love Lies Bleeding, a lesbian neo-noir drenched in brooding nightscapes, violent crime and more hardcore KStew cool than has ever been packaged in such a potent concentrate. Seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t want to watch Kristen Stewart flicking back a greasy shag, driving an old pickup and chain-smoking in grubby tank tops?
Glass instantly established herself as a singular talent with her 2021 debut, Saint Maud, an audacious shot of undiluted terror and spiraling insanity that announced an idiosyncratic new voice in horror. She follows with a swerve into romantic, sexual and physical obsession that fearlessly keeps upping the ante on just how extreme it will go. That makes it absolutely on brand for A24.
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While this is very much a bold original, it taps into a tradition of lurid pulp movies that revel in their brutal excesses, from Natural Born Killers and True Romance through Drive right on up to last year’s Infinity Pool. There’s a splash of body horror and even a sprinkling of sci-fi fantasy that plays like a steroid-addled homage to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. And its depiction of the monomaniacal pursuit of bodybuilding excellence is perhaps even more unhinged than Magazine Dreams, the 2023 Sundance conversation-starter whose release was derailed by star Jonathan Majors’ domestic violence case.
If you’re looking for restraint, look elsewhere. Love Lies Bleeding is a lot of movie. It makes the still-glorious queen of lesbian romantic crime thrillers, Bound, look almost demure.
Written by Glass and fellow filmmaker Weronika Tofilska and set in the decade of too-muchness, the 1980s, the film casts Stewart as Lou, first seen up to her elbows in a blocked toilet at the gym where she doubles as manager and solo maintenance crew. The arresting opening images courtesy of ace cinematographer Ben Fordesman (who also shot Saint Maud) take in the urban spread of a New Mexico town and the blanket of stars above before closing in on the late-night fitness routines of a decidedly male clientele, all of this set to the propulsive sounds of Clint Mansell’s seductively punchy electronic score.
Lou’s life is about to be turned upside-down by Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a bodybuilder with a murky past in Oklahoma. Blowing into town on her way to an upcoming bodybuilder contest in Vegas, Jackie needs a job fast, so she gives skeevy JJ (Dave Franco in an epically awful mullet) a sweaty quickie in the back of his car before finding a spot to sleep under a bridge. JJ hooks her up with his boss at the local shooting range, Lou Sr. (Harris), where she starts waitressing for gun nuts.
Lou Sr. is Lou’s estranged father, a malevolent creep who collects exotic bugs and — as suggested in flashes of violent imagery — has a history of murder, dumping bodies in a rocky desert ravine. Just to keep things in the family, JJ is Lou Sr.’s son-in-law, given to smacking around his wife Beth (Jena Malone). Lou is fiercely protective of her sister, maddened by Beth’s unwavering devotion to the husband who eventually lands her in hospital with a face banged up beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, Jackie has caught Lou’s eye at the gym. A shot of steroids in the butt serves as a prelude to their first kiss, followed by the first of many bouts of steamy sex. Lou provides Jackie with a place to stay, falling hard before she knows much about her. But violence crashes their romantic idyll. As Jackie gets hooked on ‘roids and increasingly obsessed with her popping veins and bulging muscles — Fordesman’s closeup shots of these in action are like an extraterrestrial landscape — Lou finds herself more than once disposing of bodies and cleaning up crime scenes.
To further complicate the scenario, Lou Sr. is the target of an FBI investigation that may prove useful to his daughter, whose own dark past is gradually revealed. And Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), a druggy occasional hookup besotted with Lou, stumbles onto some possibly incriminating knowledge that she mistakes for romantic leverage.
This kind of hyperviolent bloodbath is generally the domain of men, so it’s a welcome switch to have women at the center and a festering father-daughter tangle in place of the usual son — even if Glass has no interest in making any type of feminist statement. She punctuates the film with startling set-pieces, none of which can be described without spoilers. But Jackie’s eventual appearance on the Vegas competition stage, when her massive steroid intake has made her spin out of control, starts a crescendo of nasty gonzo moments while also landing her in the clutches of Lou Sr.
O’Brian certainly looks the part, and the sex scenes are sizzling, but her acting chops are too green to make her an ideal match for the effortless charisma of Stewart. She’s endlessly watchable, carrying the film with commanding grunge style and offsetting Lou’s tough exterior with a molten heart and mounting anxiety as the situation gets stickier. Harris makes a monstrous villain, Franco is vile sleaze personified and a platinum-blonde Malone is distressing as a wife unwilling to renounce her love for JJ despite life-threatening injuries.
Love Lies Bleeding is a hallucinatory trip down the darkest byways of Americana. It’s too blunt to be as unsettling as Saint Maud but it will leave no one indifferent.
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