There’s a monster movie buried in the heart of Love Lies Bleeding. In a little gym in a nondescript New Mexico town, muscleheads break their bodies and remold them into submission. Aspirational placards watch over them from above, reasserting that pain is “just weakness leaving the body,” among other problematic gym jargon. It’s a fitting hub for a town that’s been deluded by the American dream, where obsession has become a survival instinct and seedy, sweaty violence seems ready to erupt at any moment.
It seems that way, at least, for the listless Lou (a phenomenal Kristen Stewart), the manager of that aforementioned gym. She has no ambition, save to keep her establishment running and protect her older sister (Jena Malone) from her skeevy husband (Dave Franco). She’s holding back a cycle of violence with her bare hands, but it’s that very thing that seems to run rampant in her family. Lou’s dad (Ed Harris) is a small-town crime lord with a hand in every enterprise and no shortage of skeletons in the closet.
By the time we meet Lou — fittingly, wrist-deep in a squelching, clogged toilet — her dad’s body count may finally be catching up with him. A pair of FBI agents have recently drifted into town, prodding Lou with questions about her missing mom and her father’s shady dealings. She doesn’t seem to want any part of it, maybe at the risk of implicating herself — but everything changes when Jackie (Katy O’Brian) waltzes into Crater Gym.
It’s incredibly obvious why Lou would be into Jackie. She’s a vision in Daisy Dukes drifting from town to town; a one-two punch of demure desirability and musclebound bravado. But she’s got a dark side, too — and of course, it’s catnip to Lou, who’s suppressing her own unique brand of aggression.
The pair fall hard; Jackie is moving into Lou’s apartment before their first hookup has even ended. She’s prepping for a bodybuilding contest in Las Vegas, and Lou is all too eager to help her train, supplying her new lover with a steady supply of steroids. For a brief moment, it’s paradise: Jackie grows stronger and sexier, their encounters get even steamier, and Lou finds herself finally with something of her own to protect. But Lou Sr.’s shadow looms large, and it won’t be long before our star-crossed lovers are ensnared in his ghoulish schemes.
O’Brian is an absolute revelation as Jackie, turning in a performance that’s equal parts physical, visceral, and emotional. It’s through her steroid use that writer-director Rose Glass introduces some heady magical realism by way of body horror. Jackie essentially hulks out at the most inopportune moments, her body buckling beneath the weight of her rage and her love for Lou. The more frequently she pumps poison into her veins, the blurrier the lines become. It kickstarts the cycle of violence anew, and drags Lou back into a world that once repulsed her.
Despite sporadic turns of monstrosity, Jackie is far from the villain of this story. If anything, she serves as a gut check to our ideas of the feminine grotesque and the strong woman archetype. She’s also a perfect match for her unlikely partner in crime. As Lou, Stewart has never been better... or funnier. Love Lies Bleeding is technically a noir — but Glass makes sure to infuse this star-crossed tale with some offbeat situational comedy. Stewart feels more at home here than she has in a long time. She’s uniquely attuned to this particular brand of humor — in fact, it might have been designed with her in mind — but she also reaffirms her aptitude for action, and it’s miles more effective here than it was in Charlie’s Angels.
As with Saint Maud, Glass’ debut feature, Love Lies gleefully toys with our grasp on reality. Glass relishes in surreal visual motifs — desert skies full of stars, mundane buildings shot with a dollhouse effect, muscles rippling beneath beads of sweat — long before Jackie’s own grasp on reality begins to slip. A twinkling, pulsating score by Clint Mansell only adds to the eerie effect. And once Love Lies trades unkempt Americana for neon-drenched horror, all bets are off.
The film veers into a total fever dream as acts of violence become increasingly frequent. It delivers some of the most visually disturbing sequences of the year, and that’s great news for the horror girlies. But when interspersed throughout the film’s more grounded crime elements, some of Glass’ wild swings fail to properly land.
Love Lies wants to be a lot of things: a crime saga, a family drama, a ‘roided up western, a sapphic sex romp. It succeeds with each at turns — but even when it all comes to a bloody head, it still can’t hold all of its ideas in one hand. Its two central performances more than make up for any dissonance, though — and even if it does bite off more than it can chew, its madcap ambition is impossible to look away from.
Love Lies Bleeding hits theaters on March 8.
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