Love Lies Bleeding

Dir: Rose Glass. US/UK 2023. 104mins

An audacious, pulpy crime-thriller, British director Rose Glass’ second feature stars Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian as passionate lovers on a collision course with a blood-soaked reckoning. Love Lies Bleeding boasts wicked humour, smouldering sex scenes and shocking graphic violence, painting a damning picture of America as a seedy, amoral den of desperate souls and shattered dreams. But despite the colourful environment and gutsy performances, the film ultimately does not offer much beyond the vivid, tawdry surface, the outrageousness of these women’s predicament eventually feeling derivative rather than transgressive.

Glass weaves an intoxicating atmosphere of lust and paranoia

Following its premiere in Sundance’s Midnight strand, A24 unveils Love Lies Bleeding in the US on March 8 and the UK on April 19 (through Lionsgate), catering to indie crowds who will savour the picture’s B-movie vibes. Stewart should be a draw, as will Glass, a former Screen International Star Of Tomorrow whose 2019 debut Saint Maud was nominated for two Baftas, including outstanding British film.

Set in small-town New Mexico in 1989, Love Lies Bleeding introduces us to Lou (Stewart), a sullen young woman who works a dead-end job at a gym. Her world starts looking brighter once she meets Jackie (O’Brian), a bodybuilder who wants to compete in a tournament in Las Vegas. They quickly fall in love, but their relationship will face severe roadblocks after they butt heads with Lou’s misogynistic brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco) and her criminal father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). 

As with Saint Maud, a psychological horror film about religious fervour, Glass once again explores intense characters driven by their compulsions. Lou and Jackie have a powerful carnal attraction and soon Lou is helping her new lover sculpt her body, plying Jackie with steroids that quickly bulk her up. Jackie’s dream of becoming a champion bodybuilder soon becomes Lou’s dream as well, although the steroids have a detrimental effect on Jackie, making her frighteningly aggressive. That becomes a dangerous proposition once they plot to do something about JJ, who is physically abusive to Lou’s submissive sister Beth (Jena Malone). 

The lovers’ plan backfires disastrously, leaving Lou and Jackie in a frantic situation. At that moment, Love Lies Bleeding shifts from being a moody love story — albeit one with a palpable sense of dread hovering over the proceedings — to a gritty crime saga in which one bad choice leads to another, the stakes escalating as the couple realise that their hope of running off to Vegas to begin a new life will now never materialise.

Reuniting with Saint Maud cinematographer Ben Fordesman and editor Mark Towns, Glass weaves an intoxicating atmosphere of lust and paranoia, imagining a burned-out American West littered with guns, drugs, sex and murder. Not entirely successfully, Love Lies Bleeding feels like an homage to how the country is portrayed in movies, the luridness tending toward exaggeration rather than strict adherence to reality. But within that critique of American excess there also exists a defiantly feminist rage, with Lou and Jackie discovering that no one will help them within the cruel patriarchal society in which they are trapped.

The violence that results from their fury, while initially startling and cathartic, loses its impact as the script (co-written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska) begins treading familiar crime-thriller terrain. Love Lies Bleeding never loses its enthusiasm for outrageous twists and grand emotional flourishes. But Lou and Jackie become less interesting once the plot mechanics take over, their fiery love taking a backseat to scheming and double-crossing as Lou Sr. decides to take matters into his own hands.

Stewart flashes the requisite mixture of steeliness and fragility as a wary loner sucked into the tractor beam of Jackie’s sexual magnetism. Lou’s piercing stare hints at the untold horrors she has endured growing up in her twisted family — we will learn more about that as the story hurtles along — while O’Brian plays Jackie as a ticking time bomb, an ambitious bodybuilder who is physically and mentally warped by the copious steroids she consumes.

Glass never judges these characters, who seem to hark back to other cinematic lovers on the lam, these antiheroes’ hope for happiness hampered by the violence strewn across their path. Love Lies Bleeding makes no apologies for its stylistic boldness or its rising body count, but its swagger cannot hide a nagging hollowness underneath.  

Production companies: A24, Escape Plan, Lobo Films

International sales: A24, [email protected] 

Producers: Andrea Cornwell, Oliver Kassman 

Screenplay: Rose Glass & Weronika Tofilska 

Cinematography: Ben Fordesman

Production design: Katie Hickman

Editing: Mark Towns

Music: Clint Mansell

Main cast: Kristen Stewart, Katy O’Brian, Jena Malone, Anna Baryshnikov, Dave Franco, Ed Harris 

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By fcjyy