You can’t blame Lou (Kristen Stewart) for gawking at Jackie (Katy O’Brian) the first time she lays eyes on her. No one in Lou’s tiny Southwestern town — the only one she’s ever known — looks at all like Jackie, a budding bodybuilder who seems to have blown into town on a stiff breeze. Lou has plenty of time to look at Jackie, too, considering she spends most of her life working a demeaning job at a local gym (we first meet her as she’s unclogging a toilet, by hand) and doesn’t seem to care about much of anything. But Jackie? Oh, Lou cares, and quickly.
Lou’s gym seems to draw in the obsessive type — even the middle-aged moms are pushing themselves too hard on the exercise bikes — and a series of signs placed around the joint (“NO PAIN NO GAIN,” “ONLY LOSERS QUIT”) hammer home that mood (filmmaker Rose Glass is nothing if she is not highly skilled at delivering mood, time, and place with incredible aplomb). Lou, though, doesn’t seem obsessed with anything. That is, until Jackie sweeps into town.
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It’s the pair’s crackling chemistry — which Glass funnels into a series of genuinely hot sex scenes that more than prove the necessity for such sequences in films that hinge on actual human romantic relationships — that drives “Love Lies Bleeding,” an alternately alluring and excruciating crime thriller that also smacks of body horror and midnight movie thrills. Glass, who previously earned scads of instant fans with her “Saint Maud,” again tackles the human body as a vessel for pain, pleasure, and so much more, though the brutally blunt imagery that comes to dominate the film loses its power over time.
If “Saint Maud” was, in the words of IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, a combination of “First Reformed” and “The Exorcist,” Glass’ followup is a combination of “The Incredible Hulk,” “Desert Hearts,” and whichever Eli Roth joint features the most smashed-in heads. It’s absolutely ambitious, often electrifying, and frequently misses the mark of the many, many places it seems to be aiming for.
Lou has wanted out of her go-nowhere life forever — jeez, who wouldn’t? — but feels compelled to stay to help protect her beloved sister Beth (a well-cast Jena Malone), the victim of increasingly brutal beatings from her douchebag husband JJ (Dave Franco, sporting a mullet not nearly as good as Stewart’s; it is, after all, 1989). But it’s more complicated than that, because the very same day that Jackie walks into Lou’s gym, two other dudes do, too: FBI agents, who have plenty of questions about Lou and Beth’s skeezy dad, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), who runs the small town’s thriving criminal underbelly. (If Harris’ hairstyle, a revolting combo of bald pate and flowing strawberry blonde locks, makes you feel icky, best to get out now, before Glass gets to her real revulsions.)
Lou and Jackie fall hard and fast, with newcomer Jackie almost immediately moving into Lou’s apartment — and her heart — as she prepares for an all-important body-building contest coming up in Vegas. Jackie is driven and ambitious, but she’s also sweet and funny, and O’Brian proves to be a strong foil for Stewart, whose own performance only gets better as the film gets wilder.
That can’t entirely gloss over the film’s primary problem: Glass’ characters aren’t just complex, they’re often just plain confused. That can lead to intriguing revelations, but too often, they grate. Lou, who we realize early on has tried to cut ties with her father because she detests his lifestyle (one we also know, via chilling, red-tinted flashbacks, that she once enthusiastically participated in), is far too eager to dole out illegal steroids to Jackie. And Jackie may spend precious moments of her job interview with Lou Sr. and JJ proclaiming she hates guns — the job is, of course, at a gun range — but she’s far too quick to pick up a gun and show herself to be a crack shot.
Considering how much else will start to unfold in a film that will surely be called everything from “unhinged” to “wild,” “unpredictable” to “insane,” it would be nice to have a stronger ballast in our leading ladies. That would help its, fine, yes, unhinged, wild, unpredictable, and insane elements go down just a touch smoother. Within minutes of meeting Jackie, Lou offers up something she thinks her new paramour might enjoy: imported steroids that might give her that extra “edge.”
Lou cracks that Jackie should picture herself as Popeye, all suddenly bulging veins and such, a goofy image that soon proves to be prescient. Jackie, when juiced up and put under pressure and high on love, does start popping veins and muscles. And then things get really nuts. Love is a drug for nearly every character we meet in “Love Lies Bleeding,” one just as destructive and unpredictable as the one Jackie starts injecting far too often in her veins, which snap, crackle, and pop in ways that establish the film’s body horror bonafides and then send them to the moon. (Also snapping, crackling, and popping: Clint Mansell’s excellent score.)
Glass has a sly, dark sense of humor, and “Love Lies Bleeding” packs a number of laughs inside its already-stuffed genre mash-up; sometimes, it’s a simple line reading by Stewart (who delivers one of the all-time great “yups” here), other times, it’s a well-placed pack of cigarettes that appear at the worst of moments to tempt Lou. Co-star Anna Baryshnikov also frequently threatens to steal the movie, playing local Daisy, who is obsessed with Lou in ways that are initially hilarious, and later prove to be her undoing.
As Jackie’s dedication, Lou’s lies, and Lou Sr.’s crimes intersect in increasingly unpredictable ways, Glass’ script (which she co-wrote with Weronika Tofilska) threatens to careen out of control. Its saving grace: that you can’t look away (well, OK, perhaps you’ll want to look away during some of the film’s shockingly grotesque and ultra-violent sequences), and you can never tell where it’s going next. It doesn’t look or feel or move like much else, all those other cinematic comparisons aside, and the sheer scope of its ambition is enough to inspire awe. Maybe the most obvious answer is the best one: love itself is a drug. So is cinema.
“Love Lies Bleeding” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters on Friday, March 8.
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