Rose Glass is back with a vengeance in her sweat-slick ode to American underbelly tales, Love Lies Bleeding. The Saint Maud filmmaker returns with a brawny psychological thriller that isn't afraid to get weird or take risks, which is both a warning and encouragement. Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian unsurprisingly flex their talents while wrestling with every twist and turn in Glass' queer criminal caper, gorgeously shot like high art meets a weightlifting competition. It's gritty like grip chalk and obscure in measured doses, comparable to something illicit like Jim Mickle's Cold in July splashed with Glass' exciting penchant for surrealist pops in an otherwise grounded narrative.

Kristen Stewart stars as reclusive Crater Gym manager Lou, who takes an immediate shine to the beefy and beautiful bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O'Brian). One thing leads to another, and Jackie ends up romantically entangled with Lou, shacked together while Jackie trains for a competition in Las Vegas. Lou supports her newfound partner's ambitions, but things get complicated when Jackie crosses Lou's father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), an untouchable local villain who owns the gun range where Jackie waitresses. Lou is torn between obeying her father's orders and defending her latest fling, which becomes a catastrophe of steroid outbursts and dead bodies as the dominoes fall.

Love Lies Bleeding oddly and unexpectedly has it all. Stewart and O'Brian steamily sell the erotic chemistry that emanates from Lou and Jackie's partnership, a blistering coupling that burns loud, fast, and hot. Ed Harris is a pitch-perfect redneck don who postures as a powerful crime boss with an atrocious nearly-bald hairstyle. Then there are the bonkers odds and ends from Anna Baryshnikov's bubbly ditz of a naive romantic who's obsessed with Lou to hallucinogenic roid-rage indulgences that border on Lynchian body horrors. Glass doesn't shy away from dopey happenings that either defy imaginations or peg characters as buffoons because her reckless muses are a messy bunch who drown in poor decision-making that fuels main conflicts. Shades of blundering Coen Brothers protagonists meet an Arnold Schwarzenneger pump-up video, which works better than it should.

Glass accentuates the allure of Love Lies Bleeding through engrossing absurdism that highlights 1980s desert lawlessness. Motivations follow a familiar story once the first line is crossed between Harris' evildoer, Dave Franco's fabulously mulleted JJ, and his abusive tendencies towards bruised wife Beth (Jena Malone) — Lou's sister. What thrives is Glass' hyperfocus on vein-popping She-Hulk visuals as Jackie's muscles bulge or exceptionally off-kilter behaviors like Lou Sr.'s hands-on obsession with overgrown insects. She keeps audiences on a razor's edge by meeting instances of spousal abuse, bribed law enforcement officers, and strength-enhancing regiments with red-eyed rage that clouds rationale. Passion is displayed as an impulsive and renegade emotion, blending pleasure and pain until they're an unrecognizable slurry chopped to bits by the blades of consequence.

From a technical standpoint, Love Lies Bleeding is endlessly impressive. Stewart and O'Brian are this unique Bonnie and Clyde pair who problem solve with the best-slash-worst of ‘em, whether slamming each other against bedroom walls or pointing pistols with a quivering trigger finger. Clint Mansell's synth-poppy score teases the more fantastical elements that abandon reality as he delivers another memorable roster of backing tracks. Ben Fordesman doesn't undersell the Vegas-adjacent barrenness of Nowheresville, America, yet still gorgeously captures the sunburnt details of Lou’s pitstop of a hometown. Fordesman is so tender when capturing O'Brian's prominent vascularity and powerful physique as she practices on-stage poses with a spotlight outlining her Herculean figure, yet deviant when bathing Harris' smirking killer in alarm-red lighting with a gun pointed at the screen. Glass is meticulous with the visual storytelling of her perspiration-drippy and diabolical meet cute, especially in the way elements like audio and special effects enhance, but don’t distract from the overall experience.

On paper, or upon first impressions, Love Lies Bleeding might sound by the books — but that's what Glass wants. Characters are flustered by attraction, disaster strikes, and situations spin violently out of control. You've seen movies that follow the same mechanics — Glass knows as much. Glass' ability to reskin familiarity and present something achingly fresh is what makes Love Lies Bleeding so addictive. It's cinematic comfort food with inviting twists, hitting the highs of a topsy-turvy subgenre without repeating the lows that lesser filmmakers might rely upon. All that and crackerjack performances from Stewart, O'Brian, Harris, and the remaining rowdy bunch? You'd best add A24's latest to your "do not miss" list.  

Movie Score: 4/5

  • Matt Donato
    About the Author - Matt Donato

    Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.