Love Lies Bleeding: this bodybuilding melodrama is a film of passionate extremes

Rose Glass follows up her horror debut Saint Maud (2019) with a disjointed but compelling 1980s-set crime thriller filled with blood, sex and brawn.

26 January 2024

By Nicolas Rapold

Kristen Stewart as Lou and Katy O'Brian as Jackie in Love Lies Bleeding (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from 2024 Sundance Film Festival

Rose Glass’s full-on second feature has a hungry heart: its pastiche of amour fou, roid-rage vengeance, and small-town-gangster melodrama can surge with passionate extremes even if its bones can be basic. It’s true that sunlit scenes exist in Love Lies Bleeding, but it persists in the mind with a blood-warm nocturnal aura, opening under the stars with a fleshy, synth-pulsating montage at a gym.  

Lou (Kristen Stewart) marks time cleaning up gym toilets and checking in muscleheads, until she spots bodybuilder wannabe Jackie (Katy O’Brian) – and kicks everyone out when some guy chats her up. Their connection is swift and hot, though Lou is distracted by the dysfunction and terror of family crises. She tries to protect her sister Beth (Jena Malone) from her brutally abusive husband, JJ (Dave Franco), while also dealing with her estranged scuzz-boss father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris) who runs the shooting range where Jackie lands a gig. Having drifted into Lou’s Mexico town out of nowhere, Jackie sets off a chain reaction of sorts by putting a face-smashing end to JJ’s attacks.

Love Lies Bleeding comes most alive in death (with graphic but stylised violence), and in sex; here even a dumping-ground or a beetle (Lou Sr. fixates on them) can be imbued with a lurid memento mori sensuality. There’s a way in which Lou has been in suspended animation – Stewart looks cool and tough in 80s tank-tops, but also has an anaemic pallor that suggests she doesn’t get out much. But Lou is set into motion by covering up and cleaning up violent messes, lurching closer to a clash with Lou Sr.  

Despite tightly conceived sequences like the opening, there’s a brute force to Glass’s filmmaking. Smash cuts and amped-up sound hustle us from scene to scene, and the 1980s period setting feels more like a costuming-and-hair flourish than anything  lived-in, even with cutaways to Berlin Wall news on TV (it is telling that, according to Glass, Love Lies Bleeding was originally set in Scotland, then switched to the United States for “scale”). The upside is the film’s streak of power-of-love cartoon surrealism. Jackie swells in height and muscle mass after venting violent urges, and there’s also one especially sublime romantic image of Lou and Jackie (which idly reminded me of Kubrick’s concern about adapting the Iliad: what do you do with the gods?). 

Lou’s own unsavoury past, working with or for her father, begins to emerge from the shadows. Stewart adds her ever-valuable anxious micro-rhythms and out-there choices – like manically twirling a cigarette during one tense scene – but it’s tough to put across a backstory which is tenuously evoked. O’Brian is a winning presence, and shows terrific chemistry with Stewart, but has understandable trouble with a character that at times feels like a vessel for drama and energy. 

Completely baffling is a tedious character named Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), who stalks Lou. She seems to belong in another, lamer movie, and resurfaces mainly to goose the plot as the FBI sniff the trail leading to Lou Sr. and his implied but not so palpable criminal empire. 

In Saint Maud (2019), Glass proved capable of working up a fresh frisson from some oft-visited horror territory, but it might be time for filmmakers to give body-building a rest for a while as movie metaphor and visual booster shot. When the movie remembers that Jackie aspires to enter a bodybuilding competition, her trip to Vegas feels hasty and underwhelming, part of a second half that often feels murky and disjointed in its storytelling. Until then, though, Lou and Jackie’s journey has the virtue of feeling less lugubrious than so many male-centred crime-scion sagas; as good as Harris is at what he does, he could play this menacing, stringy-haired patriarch in his sleep.  

Love Lies Bleeding (which shares its fierce, Christianity-linked title with a Christina Rossetti love poem, a Don DeLillo play about a dying artist, and a cascading red flower) builds to an inevitable choice between flaming out against merciless forces of patriarchal aggression and running away with love. As pop as the synthetic American milieu may be, Glass’s strongest images, the ones that draw one in with mystery, are the infernal and the transcendent: Jackie’s inexplicable ascending height amid purgative violence and a hellish dark chasm where bodies, cars, and other criminal evidence are dumped and buried, undealt with. The film’s journey can feel muddled and forced in the telling, but there’s no begrudging the feeling of release in its endpoint. 

 ► Love Lies Bleeding arrives in UK cinemas 19 April. 

Other things to explore

reviews

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse biopic fails in its aspirations to focus on the music

By Rebecca Harrison

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse biopic fails in its aspirations to focus on the music
reviews

The Teachers’ Lounge: the hunt for a bad apple leads to chaos in this jittery classroom thriller

By Catherine Wheatley

The Teachers’ Lounge: the hunt for a bad apple leads to chaos in this jittery classroom thriller
reviews

Civil War: Alex Garland’s spectacle of violence is determined to throw the audience off balance

By Henry K Miller

Civil War: Alex Garland’s spectacle of violence is determined to throw the audience off balance