‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Flexes a Great Kristen Stewart and Ripped Katy O’Brian 

Anyone who has ever been in love or experienced heartbreak knows it is not always an easy road. It can actually be quite brutal. Ross Glass’ “Love Lies Bleeding” seems bent on driving this point home, quite literally. It is also a stylish, crackling crime drama with all of the lurid, simple truth of people who suddenly cross extreme lines. Many acts of violence or murder don’t always need to have archaic excuses or conspiracies, especially crimes of passion. The participants tend to be the most compelling element and Glass has brilliantly paired together Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian. Some reviewers have already missed the point that it’s the feverish physical and emotional energy these actors conjure that is the real story. 

The screenplay by Glass and Weronika Tofilska first functions like a neo-noir. It’s 1989 in some dusty New Mexico backwater town. Louise (Stewart) is known as Lou and works at a local gym, unclogging the toilets while selling steroids on the side. Into town comes a stranger, Jackie (O’Brian), with a bulky physique and dreams of winning a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. She first gets work at a gun range owned by Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), the other Lou’s father who is a bit of a local criminal. To get the gig, Jackie had sex with Lou Sr.’s unsavory son-in-law, JJ (Dave Franco), who tends to beat his wife, Beth (Jena Malone). But when Jackie meets Lou, sparks fly and they become lovers. Then, a violent incident pushes one of the women to commit murder and everything gets turned completely upside down.

“Love Lies Bleeding” is a surreal, muscular cousin to gritty thrillers like “Queen & Slim.” Another obvious comparison is “Thelma & Louise,” but even that movie is too slick and glossy compared to Glass’ concept. It’s an impressive follow-up to her 2021 debut, “Saint Maud,” about a sheltered religious woman also pushed to extremes. The script was too thin but Glass proved to be a filmmaker who can make images that stay in the memory. She still likes to skirt into dreamlike zones here with cinematographer Ben Fordesman, cutting to neon hallucinations, or expressing Jackie’s intense emotions with her muscles suddenly ballooning. Psychologically it makes sense, never turning into one of those recent arthouse experiments where the director teases us with distorted imagery that has no rhyme or reason. Overall the film stays grounded. The characters are so outrageous on their own that Glass doesn’t need to resort to imitating David Lynch.

Watching the performances in “Love Lies Bleeding” has the feel of flipping through some lurid tabloid story you can’t turn away from. Ed Harris, in one of his most diabolical roles since “A History of Violence,” relishes having terribly fake hair while snarling at newcomers and showing off his gun range to Jackie. Dave Franco, practically in a mullet, grins as if taken out of a nightmare, boasting to Lou that he “gave it” to her girlfriend first. A good actor knows how to make us delight in their villainy when it comes to a story like this. Dark comedy is combined with grit and unease. Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brien, who does have an impressive physique and presence, really go for it, pumping up the roles with plenty of sexual charge, intensity and affection. Their sex scenes are steamy but not gratuitous, with the erotic feel of excited attraction. They are two women who fall in love but happen to be surrounded by fiends and pests, like Daisy (a fittingly creepy Anna Baryshnikov), a local, manic girl with rotting teeth who obsesses over Lou. 

Glass doesn’t linger on the muscles, but instead uses the physical aspect of the story to bring across how emotions can be channeled through violence. Read enough murder cases and you learn that whenever someone seemingly normal pulled the trigger or swung the knife, the brain’s rational centers seem to have just shut off. Blind hot impulse or anger is all the killer could see. Glass wickedly figures that being passionately in love is enough to inspire Jackie to rush out of a hospital room and rip a man’s jaw apart. While a tense web builds over whether the women can get out of the corner they have stepped into, Glass doesn’t just let the plot run on autopilot. She is more intrigued with how Lou and Jackie will weather a broken sense of trust or how far they are willing to go for each other. Along the way we still get crooked cops, Lou Sr.’s ruthless planning and cars with corpses dropped into canyons. 

There’s so much passionless romance in recent cinema that a gesture like Glass’ “Love Lies Bleeding” can feel like an electric jolt. Amid the grime and melodrama, this is a sincere movie with two striking performances that go for broke. You can’t tell this kind of story by getting timid. Could the love story be more developed? There’s really no need in this case. All you need are two women who fall into the grip of immediate attraction that feels as immersive as the Clint Mansell score and its ‘80s synth textures. When feelings become overwhelming, actions are driven by instinct, even if later the consequences turn out to be fatal. That’s the spirit of “Love Lies Bleeding” in the writing, style and performances. It’s a much-needed shot of steroids into a dry movie season.

Love Lies Bleeding” releases March 8 in select theaters and expands March 15 in theaters nationwide.