Love Lies Bleeding is an Extremely Entertaining Orgy of Violence

Set in the late ‘80s, Love Lies Bleeding tells the story of two burdened women who fall in love at first sight. Lou (Kristen Stewart) is a gym manager who lives a reclusive life as she struggles to manage her business while living alone in a simple apartment with her cat (adorably named Happy Meal). Jackie (Katy O’Brian) is a vagrant who is passing through town to travel to Las Vegas to realize her dream of becoming a famous bodybuilder.

Lou has a few flings with Daisy (a frisky and amusingly desperate Anna Baryshnikov, best described as a candy cane on steroids), a carefree drunkard to offset the malaise and ennui while Jackie sells her body to lusting men for cash. When Jackie gets into a punch-up outside of Lou’s gym, the two lock eyes as they lick each other’s wounds. One sharp prick (of steroids) in the ass later, the sparks (among other things) spread like wildfire and they engage in vigorous sets in horizontal and upright refreshment. While their muscular romance continues to increase in mass, Lou’s unresolved past catches up with her like the escalating skip times of leg day. The weight-vest of baggage comes in the form of Lou’s brother-in-law JJ (a weaselly and greasy Dave Franco, best described as a dumbbell with a mullet) and Lou’s estranged father/crime figure Lou Sr. (a bizarre and imposing Ed Harris).

The skeezy JJ is married to Lou’s unfortunate sister Beth (a soft-spoken, emotionally covert Jena Malone) and is not only an associate to Lou Sr., but abuses Beth constantly, much to the chagrin of Lou. And of course, there is the patriarch himself. His otherworldly presence and his proclivity for ultraviolence bears such a looming shadow over Lou that she constantly has recurring dreams over her last encounter with him. Will Lou and Jackie manage to escape the clutches of the men in their life and truly be together?

Love Lies Bleeding is the sophomore effort from filmmaker Rose Glass. She is best known for her highly-acclaimed feature-length directorial debut Saint Maud, which received plaudits for its directorial vision, assured handling of tone and tension and its remarkably concise storytelling. For her second film, she ventures outside her home territory and aims for ‘80s America, in all its mighty, lusty, sweaty glory. Through the Glass eye, she takes the iconography of ‘80s America and injects her distinct vision into it that veers into body horror, surrealism, and neo-noir trashiness.

She not only captures the blood, sweat and tears of his characters through close-ups of her cast and putting them through the physical and emotional wringer; but she also captures the rough, coarse, gritty feel of the desert slice of Americana and exoticizes it to nightmarish proportions. From the prevalent use of guns to muscles ratio that emphasise the mitigation of one’s voice to the use of chasms and toilets to represent the abyss where past baggage will always lurk to haunt us; Glass assures us that his is no ordinary trashy noir or a simple throwback to one. The tactile cinematography by Ben Fordesman (who also worked on Saint Maud), the era-appropriate production design by Katie Hickman (which features the unfortunate yet true choice of using carpets in gyms) and the stylish, propulsive score by Clint Mansell add substantial credence to Glass’ vision.

The film delivers the love, the lies and indeed the bleeding. But that is not to say all the doom and gloom that pervades the noir world (as well as the title) are the only things that persist. Glass and her co-screenwriter Weronika Tofilska sprinkle plenty of playful humour that ranges from idiosyncratic (the fascination Lou Sr. has with his pet beetles), bleak (Lou assuring Beth over a tragic incident and then impulsively voicing her own contrarian opinion on it), ironic (seeing the tough-guy facades unravel in light speed), prurient (the sex scenes become more raunchy as the progression of the relationship between Lou and Jackie delves deeper and breaks through the bottom line candidly) and downright macabre (the increasing number of dead bodies that Lou has to dispose of). Thankfully, the humour works because it offsets the oppressive tone that permeates off the violence. It also feels organic coming off the robust characterizations and it makes the off-kilter turns into magical realism feel earned and cathartic.

The diversions into magical realism add to the nightmarish vision and provides a counterbalance to the grit. We see sights of Jackie reaching Herculean proportions as she flexes or becomes emotionally volatile; the appearance of Lou Sr. is so bizarre that he looks like a Japanese kappa in human form and we see a huge crevasse that is a dumping ground that is a metaphorical abyss of Hell. All this imagery adds a fairy tale, whimsical feel that elevates the trashiness into something more than just prurience and pity. It is admirable of Glass to take huge tonal swings such as this and the fact that they work as well as they do is thanks to her confident handling of tone and storytelling.

It also helps that Glass has a great cast of spotters to help with the heavy lifting. It is absolutely refreshing to see Kristen Stewart become a more assertive and forceful presence on screen as of late. In her prior work, she had excelled in more reticent, emotionally withdrawn roles like in Spencer, Personal Shopper, Speak and many others. But now, there is a sense of empowerment, a gumption, a striking sense of initiative in her work like in Charlie’s Angels, Happiest Season and Crimes of the Future. Her portrayal of Lou is a masterstroke of ferocity, giddiness and duplicity and Stewart manages to convey the facets of her character with remarkable dexterity and genuine humanity.

Love Lies Bleeding is the leading film debut for Katy O’Brian, who is best known for her work in television series like Z Nation, Black Lightning and The Mandalorian. Her performance in the role of Jackie proves to be fantastic compliment to Stewart’s Lou. Despite (or because of) her magnetic Rodin-esque presence, her work is a compellingly understated portrayal of reticence, wide-eyed naivety and pent-up rage.

While some people will watch her work and think it is easy for her to play the role of Jackie because she too is a bodybuilder; that type of narrow thinking is frankly irrelevant and boorish. It never considers that she must be a compelling scene partner to Stewart as well as other established actors like Ed Harris, Dave Franco and others. Her chemistry with Stewart is alluring, passionate and sweet in its brashness as they flirt, console, and pump each other up – in more ways than one. And it is their relationship that is the heart of the film that keeps the blood pumping as the story reaches numerous steep inclines and declines.

Overall, Love Lies Bleeding is an extremely entertaining orgy of violence, prurience and adrenaline that is an amazing showcase of Rose Glass’ directorial talent of storytelling and genre-mashing, an enthralling expansion of Kristen Stewart’s acting prowess and a must-see showcase of Katy O’Brian’s talent – all at once. Highly recommended.

Director: Rose Glass

Cast: Anna Baryshnikov, Kristen Stewart, Dave Franco

Writers: Rose Glass, Weronika Tofilska

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Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic who arrives for the love of genre and stays for the pull of human drama. Writes films reviews with all the trimmings, all wrapped up in a sesame seed bun. Find Harris’ work at The AU Review, Impulse Gamer, In Their Own League Social Media: @FilmMomatic – Twitter Rotten Tomatoes: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critics/harris-dang/movies

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