Friday, March 15, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

“Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

Minor spoilers ahead.

2019’s Saint Maud, the debut feature from English director Rose Glass, is about the horrors of devotion, the self-immolating sacrifices we make — literally, in that particular case — to properly demonstrate our fidelity to those we love. Contrary to popular belief, love isn’t felt in the heart. Not really. It’s felt in the bones. The cartilage. The marrow. It can be an uncomfortable, often painful sensation. An entity, even — something hungry and alive, a force majeure laying waste to everything in its path. That may not sound much like a Hallmark card, but it’s the only way to describe what drives Lou (Kristen Stewart) and Jackie (Katy O’Brian), the sweaty, star-crossed paramours of Glass’ electric sophomore effort, Loves Lies Bleeding. Their passion is an all-consuming infection that courses through their veins with destructive purpose, and as Love Lies Bleeding chronicles their struggle to overcome — or perhaps to give into — its deadly allure, it becomes a most demented and uncompromising erotic thriller, a sexy romp recalling the very best the genre has to offer.
Set in the Nevada desert circa 1989 — though graciously foregoing most of the cheeky period nostalgia that distracted efforts like Lisa Frankenstein — Love Lies Bleeding introduces us to Lou while she’s elbow-deep in shit. Literally. Even in the roided-out golden age of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, there’s nothing glamorous about managing Crater Gym, a dingy haunt adorned with posters insisting that “Only Losers Quit” and perfumed by what has to be a truly wretched combination of sweat, bacteria, and the aforementioned fecal material. Lou approaches clogged toilets with the same torpid detachment defining every other aspect of her life: Long-since estranged from her father, local crime boss Lou Senior (a leathery Ed Harris, sporting the most delightful of the film’s extravagant wigs), she cares only for her sister, Beth (Jena Malone), whose perkiness masks a history of abuse at the hands of her husband, J.J. (Dave Franco). Outside of the occasional urge to quit smoking, Lou doesn’t have too much else going on.

Enter Jackie, a drifter whose finely-sculpted physique evinces her desire to compete in an upcoming bodybuilding championship in Las Vegas. Lou is down from the jump, doing her best to ignore Jackie’s job at her father’s gun range and the backseat encounter with J.J. — one of Lou Senior's lieutenants — she suffered through to get it. Jackie’s unwavering commitment to physical greatness is catnip to Lou and becomes almost superhuman — perhaps literally superhuman, depending on your interpretation of Love Lies Bleeding’s spectacularly unhinged final act — as their relationship blossoms. It’s hot and heavy at first, of course — Stewart and O’Brian share remarkable physical chemistry — but the honeymoon ends with the news that Beth is in the hospital: J.J.’s hands have flown free for the last time, Jackie concludes, and she punishes him in a flash of belligerent gore that will delight fans of David Cronenberg to no end. An act of devotion? Most certainly. But now our lovers are on the run from cops, neighbors, and most importantly, Lou Senior.
Cowriting with Weronika Tofilska, Rose Glass crafts a crime caper that draws an enlivening portrait of queer love that never lionizes its lead characters just because they are queer or exaggerates their tumultuous affair just because it was considered unconventional at the time. Its most obvious antecedent is the Wachowski’s Bound, of course, but Love Lies Bleeding feels defiant in its modernism: Both its sex and its violence are brutal and unforgiving, neither asking for permission to exist nor conceding depth and detail for marketability’s sake. Glass so adeptly blends fantasy with reality that its moments of body horror — and, to perhaps coin a term, body elation — always ring true to the characters, which largely declaws any criticism we might have of their plausibility. These are broken, delusional people who were inclined toward complete codependency long before they were spraying Clorox on bloody walls and disposing of mutilated bodies in rolled-up area rugs. Their joy should feel extra-terrestrial. Their rage should feel vicious and ruthless.

Lou is a film noir anti-hero tailor-made for Kristen Stewart, who slides into the role with every bit of the authority she’s earned over the last decade of fearless performances. There’s a unique brand of minor-key eagerness to Lou, though, that separates her from the nail-biting introverts and androgynous badasses in Stewart’s filmography: While those characters are often eye-rolling cynics whose refusal to suffer fools gives them a competitive edge, Lou’s performative antipathy is guarding a true, almost juvenile desire for connection. She wants to unburden herself of the guilt that has shaped her past — Don’t ask her why she knows all the best local spots for hiding corpses — and forge an honest love that won’t be defined by pain and loss. It’s through Jackie that she comes to understand why Beth would stay devoted to J.J. or why her father would sacrifice his family in pursuit of a criminal empire. Jackie — embodied brilliantly by newcomer Katy O’Brian — is unmitigated potential, a sky for which Lou can finally find the bravery to reach.
Even without all the psychological nuance, though, Love Lies Bleeding would thrive as an exciting and unpredictable thriller that announces Rose Glass a major genre auteur. It’s as sweet as it is dangerous, as human as it is ostentatious. Audiences might divide over some stylistic choices here and there — Can you birth a full-grown Kristen Stewart? The answer may surprise you! — but Love Lies Bleeding is such a triumphantly gnarly watch that even the doubters will be compelled to admit that it’s Good for Cinema on the whole. Where would Ed Harris get away with eating bugs if not on the silver screen? Where else would a casual reach for a cigarette provoke uproarious laughter? I, for one, will never look at area rugs the same way again. Rose Glass is helping movies get their balls back after a decade of corporate mediocrity. If we want to ensure another generation of cinephiles, then young audiences need to see brassy, messy, kooky shit like Love Lies Bleeding. Crank up the Clint Mansell score, shoot some steroids, and let the girls take you for a wild ride.

Love Lies Bleeding is in theaters now.

1 comment:

  1. woot! this ups my stoked-ness to see the movie considerably. thanks sir!