Love Lies Bleeding review: The gnarliest crime story of the year

A blood-splattered Kristen Stewart sits against a door in Love Lies Bleeding.

“Love Lies Bleeding is a blood-soaked, underwritten thriller that is elevated by Rose Glass’ impeccably stylish direction and Kristen Stewart’s impressive central performance.”

Pros

  • Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian’s capable, complementary lead performances
  • Rose Glass’ mesmerizing direction
  • A satisfyingly dark sense of humor throughout

Cons

  • An underwritten script
  • Several forgettable supporting characters
  • One big, climactic creative swing doesn’t fully connect

In Love Lies Bleeding, passion and devotion aren’t things you feel. They’re drugs you inject. The sophomore feature effort from Saint Maud filmmaker Rose Glass is a sweaty, muscular thriller that luxuriates in the messiness of romance. It’s a film that tries to straddle, though not always successfully, the line between the literal and metaphysical — inserting dreamlike images of physical transformation and companionship between its scenes of rough sex, violence, and death. It is a blunt-force instrument that hits you enough times over the head that you buy fully into the seemingly cosmic power of its central love story, even if you remain a bit dubious about the specifics of its plot.

Above all else, it reiterates Kristen Stewart’s status as one of the world’s premiere big-screen performers and Glass’ artistic interest in the delirious pleasure that can sometimes be found in pain. Like Morfydd Clark’s fanatical private care worker in Saint Maud, who walks on metal spikes to feel closer to her faith, the two lovers at the center of Glass’ latest film achieve ecstasy through exertion, whether they’re smashing the faces of those they hate, burying the bodies of those they’ve killed, or lifting weights.

Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart sit together in Love Lies Bleeding.
Anna Kooris / A24

Love Lies Bleeding isn’t set literally in the underworld, but it might as well be. Not only does its first image, a low-angle shot of two canyon walls lit by a nightmarish red light, immediately evoke ideas of hellfire and eternal damnation, but it’s set in the kind of ambiguously southern, palpably seedy American town that makes one inevitably think about things like purgatory if they have the unfortunate pleasure of being trapped there long enough. Unlike Saint Maud, which feels firmly rooted in Glass’ British upbringing and particular obsessions, Love Lies Bleeding is a broader film. Its setting is so vaguely Texan and indistinctly 1980s that it doesn’t feel lived-in so much as it does inherited — namely, from all the many Southern American crime thrillers that clearly inspired it.

The film, consequently, lacks some of the specificity and bite of Glass’ feature directorial debut. Ben Fordesman’s nocturnal, harsh cinematography partly makes up for that, as do Stewart and Katy O’Brian’s performances as its leads. The former stars in the thriller as Lou, a lesbian gym manager who is desperate to get away from her criminal father, Lou Sr. (a cartoonishly styled Ed Harris), but feels obligated to stay in her hometown and look out for her sister, Beth (a practically chicken-fried Jena Malone), who refuses to divorce her abusive, walking red flag of a husband, J.J. (Dave Franco). When O’Brian’s bodybuilder drifter, Jackie, wanders into Lou’s gym one night, the two quickly strike up a yanking, clothes-tearing romance.

Behind the camera, Glass goes out of her way to emphasize the physical nature of Lou and Jackie’s relationship. In their first meeting, Jackie socks a misogynistic homophobe in the face, and it’s only a few minutes later that Lou is telling her to bend over so she can inject her with steroids. Several sex scenes follow — all comprised of uncontrolled handheld camera takes and close-up shots of mouths kissing and hands gripping. These scenes stylistically differ from the steadiness of Jackie’s weightlifting workouts and posing routines, but Glass’ unrelenting focus on her performers’ bodies means they achieve the same effect. She’s not a filmmaker afraid of literalizing her metaphors (as she does multiple times throughout Love Lies Bleeding), but her greatest strength is her ability to visually foreground the most tangible aspects of her deranged, often surreal cinematic worlds and the performances captured within them.

Ed Harris points a gun in Love Lies Bleeding.
Anna Kooris / A24

Before long, Jackie and Lou’s Molotov cocktail of a relationship has erupted in a double act of violent defiance that inevitably sets Lou Sr.’s sights on his estranged daughter and her partner (in love and in crime). Apart from one shocking instance of coerced violence, the twists that Love Lies Bleeding‘s crime plot has to offer aren’t all that surprising, and the film could have benefitted from spending more time in the actual fallout of Lou and Jackie’s actions. By using her leads’ impulsive decisions as a vessel to explore the psychological effects of Lou’s toxic familial relationships, though, Glass does add a level of squeamish discomfort to Love Lies Bleeding in its second act that, at certain points, becomes unbearable.

Stewart’s performance only adds to that aspect of the film. The actress beautifully balances both Lou’s confidence and her frustration with her own debilitating sense of powerlessness. Her turn in Love Lies Bleeding is one of microexpressions and tiny details — notice, for instance, the way the pitch of her voice rises in her final scenes with Harris and how that only further reinforces the recognizable parent-child dynamic of their characters’ otherwise abnormal relationship. Many of the film’s supporting figures, including Lou’s father, are too underwritten for the actors playing them to make much of a lasting impression. Stewart nonetheless capably anchors the thriller with the help of O’Brian, who similarly shines in a role that asks her to seem simultaneously powerful and wide-eyed.

The way in which Stewart and O’Brian manage to rise above Love Lies Bleeding‘s many underbaked elements is ultimately emblematic of the film itself. The thriller is an imperfect success that further establishes Glass as a visual stylist of considerable power, but one can’t ever shake the feeling that it’s just a bit thinner than it should be. Fortunately, while Love Lies Bleeding falls short as a nerve-wracking crime potboiler, it works better as a blood-soaked romance that acutely understands how love has the power to make you feel both superhumanly strong and weaker than you’ve ever felt before — no matter how much iron you pump.

Love Lies Bleeding is now playing in theaters.

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