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Sundance movie review: Shocking LGBTQ bodybuilder crime invigorates 'Love Lies Bleeding'

Katy O'Brien (L) and Kristen Stewart star in "Love Lies Bleeding." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Katy O'Brien (L) and Kristen Stewart star in "Love Lies Bleeding." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- In movies, as in life, love often makes people make poor decisions, even kill. Love Lies Bleeding, which screened Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a violent crime saga with several unique twists on the genre.

Lou (Kristen Stewart) works at a Louisville, Ky. gym in 1989. Bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O'Brien) and sleeps with JJ (Dave Franco) to get a job at Lou Sr.'s (Ed Harris) gun range.

JJ is also the abusive husband of Lou's sister, Beth (Jena Malone), and they are both Lou Sr.'s duaghters. When Lou and Jackie are alone together in the gym, they begin a romance, and share steroids together.

Neither Jackie nor Lou are the femme fatale per se, although Jackie is the drifter rolling into town. Jackie even invites Lou to come to watch her compete in a Las Vegas bodybuilding competition.

Director Rose Glass, who co-wrote the script with Weronika Tofilska, presents Lou and Jackie in a frank, loving relationship. Jackie is bisexual, though did not sleep with JJ for pleasure, but together, neither Lou nor Jackie need anyone else.

Anna Baryshnikov also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by David Silpa/UPI
Anna Baryshnikov also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by David Silpa/UPI

O'Brien is a powerful screen presence. Just watching her lift weights, or do pushups and sit-ups on the street, is captivating.

Glass emphasizes the sound of Jackie stretching and flexing her muscles. Her veins bulge when making love with Lou, but Jackie is volatile, perhaps naturally and certainly with the amplification of steroids.

Jena Malone also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Jena Malone also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI

The crime in which Jackie and Lou are involved is graphically violent and shows the gory aftermath more times than expected. Covering it up leads to more questions that spiral, and threaten to tear Lou and Jackie apart.

Lou Sr. gets involved to look after his daughters, but that only exacerbates the fraught relationship he has with Lou Jr. One of Lou Jr.'s sometimes booty calls, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) also gets involved complicating both the crime and Lou's new love with Jackie.

Ed Harris also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Ed Harris also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI

Jackie spirals into some surreal visions. When those visions use digital effects, it's far less impressive than the killings that look practical, although those too could also be really good CGI at this point.

But, the surreal visions are meant to look unnatural and disturbing. Lou Sr.'s exotic bug collection pays off in an unexpected way, though one with a cinematic legacy.

Dave Franco, seen with wife Alison Brie, also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Dave Franco, seen with wife Alison Brie, also stars in "Love Lies Bleeding." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Throughout the extremes of the plot, Love Lies Bleeding maintains a macabre sense of humor. Mostly, Lou's reactions to extreme crimes are disproportionately rational and casual.

Love Lies Bleeding is not the best lesbian crime thriller ever. That is still Bound, but there's room for more and Love Lies Bleeding certainly goes to unusual places that should not be spoiled.

Rose Glass directed "Love Lies Bleeding." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Rose Glass directed "Love Lies Bleeding." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

A24 will release Love Lies Bleeding.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.