Gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) is introduced with her hand down a clogged toilet. She will spend a lot of the next two hours cleaning up much worse messes in Rose Glass’ powerful “Love Lies Bleeding,” a sexy, brutal, violent, kinetic piece of filmmaking that’s about, well, love, lies, and bleeding. It’s a gut punch about a steroid-using bodybuilder that’s on roids itself, getting bolder and more cinematically muscular with each subsequent twist. A few of the daringly ambitious punches don’t completely land, especially in a frenetic final act, but it’s a minor complaint for a film that confirms that Glass is a major talent with an uncompromising vision.
Lou lives in one of those middle of nowhere towns that the American dream forgot. Set at the end of the prime of the musclebound hero era in 1989, Glass sketches a remote town in New Mexico that looks like it literally traps people in cycles of violence. Lou has a locally famous family in that her father Lou Sr. (a wonderfully seedy Ed Harris) is basically the town’s crime lord. The owner of a gun range, he’s running weapons across the border, and has been disposing of his enemies in a nearby ravine, possibly even Lou’s mother. Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) struggles under the pain of domestic abuse at the hands of her awful husband JJ (a mulleted Dave Franco). Into this vat of lighter fluid drops the flame that is Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a bodybuilder just stopping off to train on her way to a contest in Las Vegas. She’s like nothing Lou has ever seen. They fall in love, alternating injections of steroids with other kinds of strenuous physical activity. The charismatic O’Brian play Jackie like a literal superhero, getting stronger with each shot of either steroids or Lou’s commitment to her, but her Bruce Banner ultimately has a dark side too.
At first, “Love Lies Bleeding” feels like a relatively straightforward noir with the outsider in Jackie almost stumbling into decisions that can’t be reversed. It’s been compared to “Drive” and “Thelma & Louise,” but there’s also a bit of the great “Red Rock West” and other films about strangers who get stuck in the small town they just wanted to spend a night in. When a shocking and gory act of violence forever alters Jackie & Lou’s relationship, “Love Lies Bleeding” really picks up steam, pushing its characters into increasingly tight spaces from violence may provide the only escape. But it constantly swerves left when you expect it to swerve right, unpredictable in ways that can be invigorating.
Part of that comes from the fact that Rose Glass hasn’t made a traditional modern noir. She’s made a film that doesn’t lean into tropes like the femme fatale as much as explode in a new direction, getting more surreal and unpredictable, like a steroid trip gone very wrong. Some of the narrative explosions of the final act will be way too much for some people, and I do think that Jackie’s character gets a bit lost in the haze of the narrative role she needs to play, although O’Brian is a real find, using her physical presence in a way that’s confident without being showy. Glass avoids the potential to go Refn-esque stylized too, edging into territory that could be called over-done but never crossing that line. She very intentionally keeps the film gritty, sweaty, and dirty, which greatly adds to the substance and the stakes. (Major credit to a phenomenal Clint Mansell score too.)
Of course, it helps that the usually-great Kristen Stewart knows exactly what to do here, playing Lou not as a wide-eyed loser who is just trying to escape her life, but a strong voice made louder by her love for Jackie. It’s important that Lou isn’t a victim in this tale, and Stewart nails a character who is somehow both confident and vulnerable at the same time. She’s the cleaner (and I also love how much “Love Lies Bleeding” focuses on how acts of violence have a very practical aftermath that someone has to clean up.) It’s a great performance.
Just as in “Saint Maud,” “Love Lies Bleeding” is about obsession. That stunning debut was about obsession with faith and religion. This one is about obsession with all the things that make people feel powerful, particularly guns and muscles. Glass sets up characters with distinct goals—Jackie wants to win, Lou wants Jackie, her dad wants power, etc.—and then she bounces them off each other in increasingly gonzo narrative twists. What elevates it is how much of a grip Glass maintains on her filmmaking through the chaos. Even as these characters are practically spinning off into the sky, Rose Glass is in complete control.