Credit: A24
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

Love Lies Bleeding — Rose Glass

March 8, 2024

Arriving less than a month after the release of Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke’s queer crime-comedy Drive-Away DollsLove Lies Bleeding, from British filmmaker Rose Glass, signals a mini-trend of high-profile, lesbian-noirs hitting theaters in early 2024. A late ’80’s-set bit of nastiness awash in sex, a pervasive air of criminality, and indiscriminate violence, all set against dreary small-town life, Love Lies Bleeding — dispositionally as well as setting-wise — actually owes a fair amount to the Coens (particularly their scrappy, 1984 breakthrough Blood Simple), but Glass is attempting something more baroque and arguably more macabre than a mere tale of lust and murder. As evidenced by her 2019 debut Saint Maud, Glass is really a body-horror filmmaker who dabbles in magical realism. Above all else, Love Lies Bleeding is consumed with purification through pain and pushing the human body to its physical limits as spiritual release while also demonstrating a special interest in the amount of damage that can be done to the human face with only your bare hands. It’s a film of considerable style and striking imagery with a sprinkling of gallows humor, yet it treats its characters as little more than department store mannequins on which to drape seedy textures and truly regrettable hairstyles. It revels in its own ugliness while trying to position the romance at its center as a salvation for its two main characters, to little avail. It’s like a desert flower struggling to grow out of a pile of dogshit.

Beginning with a shot that cranes up from a deep crevice in the earth that initially appears to be the depths of hell (the film returns to saturated reds as a recurring motif) to a janky gym in a one-stoplight town in New Mexico, we’re introduced to Lou (a perpetually sweaty, glammed-down Kristen Stewart), our protagonist with a troubled past, literally up to her elbows in human excrement. Seemingly hiding out from life by working as a night manager at an establishment that looks a lot closer to something out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than Planet Fitness, Lou splits her time between looking bored sitting behind the front desk and unclogging the pesky toilet in the women’s bathroom. Lou’s estranged father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), is a local crime lord and gunrunner operating out of a shooting range in the middle of the desert; that father and daughter barely speak to one another doesn’t stop the FBI from trying to hit up Lou the junior for intel on her old man. It’s heavily implied that Lou used to be intimately involved with her father’s business and knows where all the bodies are buried (not remotely a metaphor), but these days her only connection to her family is her older sister Beth (Jenna Malone). Beth is married to an abusive shitheel named JJ (Dave Franco, winning a tightly contested four-way race for the film’s most mortifying wig) who routinely beats his wife, drawing the ire of Lou and tacit approval from his employer, Lou Sr. And into this family dysfunction steps Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a permed weightlifter and drifter, hitchhiking her way across the American West on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Vegas. Sleeping next to overpasses and screwing JJ for a job referral at Lou Sr.’s gun emporium/dive bar, Jackie has dim prospects — she’s an impressive physical specimen, but winning the competition feels like a pipe dream, as does her ambition of parlaying a victory into a career as a personal trainer in California — but she catches Lou’s eye from across the room, flexing in Lycra workout wear.

There’s an instant connection between the two women, and after Jackie trades punches in the gym parking lot with a male bruiser twice her size (some early foreshadowing that the character can be easily provoked into violence), Lou is icing down her new friend’s bruises and, faster than you can say “pumping iron,” is volunteering to inject steroids into her backside. After an evening of especially carnal lovemaking — there’s some business involving Stewart and O’Brian’s foot that feels like it’ll be playing in Tarantino’s private screening room for years to come — Jackie gets the quick invite to move in with Lou, and soon the two women are a regular Ozzie and Harriet (or Harriet and Harriet, anyway), with Lou making her new gal pal egg-white omelets every morning and scoring her steroids while she trains for the upcoming competition. It all would be perfectly quaint except Jackie won’t quit her job waitressing for Lou Sr., keeping her in his insidious orbit. And then there’s JJ, who continues to take his anger out on Beth to the point of putting her in the hospital with some John Merrick-like facial welts. After Lou pledges to see JJ dead in retaliation, Jackie does what any supportive girlfriend in the throes of roid rage would do: surprise JJ in his home and proceed to pummel him until his face is sloppy joes. Soon, the two women are disposing of what remains of JJ, with Lou hoping to exploit the situation to finally bring her father down. However, when your partner-in-crime is an unreliable rage case with synthetic testosterone racing through her veins, things will invariably go awry.

Glass’ approach here is to try and draw a distinction between originality and specificity; Love Lies Bleeding is both instantly recognizable for what it is while possessing upsetting, almost alien, qualities that can be thrown in the audience’s face. As a noir, the film is straight (no pun intended) pastiche, starting with its title, which reads like something on the spine of a Mickey Spillane novel, as well as a laundry list of what happens in the film. Every character is an archetype with minimal deviations: a resourceful yet restless woman, a mysterious stranger compelled to commit violence on their lover’s behalf, a shadowy patriarch pulling strings behind the scenes, etc. Many a body is rolled up into a carpet and driven out to the desert for disposal, potential witnesses turn up who need to be “dealt with,” and corrupt cops lurk about. The exact nature of Lou Sr.’s operation is vague yet all-encompassing — the script leans heavily on inferences about his daughter’s own culpability (although her knack for cleaning up blood spatter at crime scenes is revealing) — and the film is curiously underpopulated even for its small town setting, with seemingly the same six characters constantly crossing paths with one another at highly inopportune times. Even the film’s queer elements feel largely ornamental, a modest tweaking of traditional noir dynamics and gender roles, as though the filmmakers did a “find and replace” on the screenplay and changed half the “he’s” to “she’s” (for a 1980s American town populated by gym rats, wife-beaters, and gun nuts, homophobia is less of an issue than one might expect).

Yet that fails to take into account how defiantly strange the film is, with Glass casually intermingling the fantastical with a practically soul-crushing, working-class existence, particularly as it relates to Jackie and her better living through chemistry. Glass presents the effects of steroids on Jackie the way a horror movie might depict its character turning into a werewolf, with the surface of the character’s skin rapidly breaking out in vascular groupings accompanied by squishy sound effects or her anger manifesting itself in clothes-ripping flexing and smashing into things (rarely has the term “hulking out” been this apt). The film saves its boldest conceptual swing for its climax, and while the idea isn’t especially well executed, one almost has to grudgingly admire Glass for not being hemmed in by stodgy notions of realism. With so little investment in the characters or plot — Stewart, whose innate recessiveness has been used to spectacular effect by filmmakers like Cronenberg and Assayas, falls into the trap of conflating boredom as a character trait with a performance choice — the film doubles and triples down on unflattering hair and costume choices and rampant grotesquerie. Harris, in addition to wearing hair extensions that make him appear like the Crypt-Keeper, amuses himself by playing with nasty-looking exotic bugs; it’s kind of a nothing part, but the actor at least appears to be enjoying himself inhabiting it. Glass keeps cutting back to shots of Franco’s caved-in face, either for shock effect or simply to appreciate the complexity of the prosthetic work. And then there’s the sheer volume of bodily fluids — not just all the perspiration, clogged toilets, and brain matter to be cleaned up, but this is surely the most vomit to appear in a major motion picture since Team America.

Still, the crux of the film and whether it succeeds is the relationship between Lou and Jackie, and specifically the on-camera chemistry between Stewart and O’Brian. There’s a relaxed comfort between the two performers, which often reads more as best friends than new lovers; the sequences that most play to the actresses’ respective strengths are the ones where Lou is simply transfixed by the almost magical creature in her presence: scenes like Lou silently observing a glistening Jackie as she performs chin-ups around the house, with Stewart sprawled out on the carpet below her, playfully/sadistically holding a lighter to the bottom of O’Brian’s feet to motivate her. But Jackie is an impossible character whose erratic behavior can’t be anticipated on a scene-by-scene basis, with the film constantly pulling her in whatever direction furthers the plot at any given moment (Glass is far too comfortable attributing this to Jackie’s steroid use, treating its effects almost interchangeably with powerful psychotropics). It’s a lot to ask of an inexperienced actress: O’Brian has previously had small roles in films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but is a relative novice — although, having previously been both a competitive bodybuilder and a police officer, it sounds like she’s lived a fascinating life. And while she nails the physicality of the role, she never locks in on the character’s inner life in a way that might have transformed them into something other than a walking plot device. In a way, O’Brian is a perfect distillation of the film’s emphasis on memorable aesthetic choices and atypical pageantry at the expense of nearly everything else. In the moment, you can’t take your eyes off of her, but like the film, she feels unformed and unknowable.

DIRECTOR: Rose Glass;  CAST: Kristen Stewart, Katy M. O’Brian, Ed Harris, Jena Malone;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS: March 8;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 44 min.