Love Lies Bleeding

In an ideal world, talking about LOVE LIES BLEEDING would involve comic book-style onomatopoeia. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman captures muscles in close-up, sweating, heaving, and bursting as they flex. Skin creaks, pulls, and rips across bones, threatening to tear open. In Rose Glass’s new feature, her follow-up to the stunning SAINT MAUD, bodies are vessels that can barely contain what they feel inside. Something is always trying to burst out.

Kristen Stewart stars as Lou, a gym manager in 1980s New Mexico, who we first meet with her arm rammed down the worst toilet seen on screen since TRAINSPOTTING. She’s capable of – and dreams of – greater things but sticks around in her quiet little town to look out for her sister Beth (Jena Malone), who is in an abusive relationship with Dave Franco’s JJ. One day, Katy O’Brian’s Jackie wanders into Lou’s gym. She’s built like an Olympian, catching everyone’s eye the moment she walks through the door, but it’s Lou she goes home with that night.

So far, so romantic, but LOVE LIES BLEEDING has dirt under its fingernails. Violence and crime are always just out of shot, threatening to shatter the humble life Lou has built for herself. Her father, played by Ed Harris in one of the year’s most outlandish wig choices, is wanted by authorities for decades of lawless activity. Between the pain of tracking the bruises on her sister’s face and the paranoia of cops using her to get to her dad, Lou welcomes the distraction of passionate encounters with Jackie, but there is a sense the peace won’t last.

The film places love and violence alongside one another and considers the physical euphoria of both. When Lou slips Jackie steroids, phantasmagoric sequences show her arms swelling like Popeye after a can of spinach. As her love for Lou grows, so does she, and so do the lengths she would go to to protect her. But the drugs are addictive and, before long, are all-consuming. Her loss of control is liberating in sex, adrenaline-fuelled in fights, and destructive when injected. It is the kind of film for which the word ‘want’ will never suffice when ‘need’ exists.

When things turn grimy, Glass returns to the body horror of SAINT MAUD for some genuinely gnarly moments of splatter. One particularly rage-filled clash ends with someone’s jaw hanging off their face, which is why LOVE LIES BLEEDING cannot be described without invoking the senses. Glass pairs its relatively conventional crime thriller plot with extreme blood- and sweat-soaked physicality. It is sticky, and it smells.

Even with her disciplined workout regime, boosted by substances, Jackie’s statuesque body can never fully communicate her visceral feelings of love towards Lou. Glass uses the visual language of fantasy to go beyond what is possible, warping Lou’s appearance as a way of representing a kind of overwhelming obsession that our physical forms can’t contain. To communicate the essence of God in her previous film, Glass had Maud levitate in her bedroom, pushing her further along the path of religious devotion. She is a director fascinated by how what we feel is constrained by the capabilities of our bodies and, therefore, imagines what it would be like if they could react accordingly to our emotions and impulses.

As a crime thriller, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel. There are deaths, cover-ups, and races against time. But Kristen Stewart is one of modern cinema’s greatest screen presences, her sizzling chemistry with O’Brian is enrapturing, and Glass’s unique and distinct palette as a director is a shot in the arm to a genre with well-worn beats. Put simply, LOVE LIES BLEEDING rips.