‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Review: A Sleek, Subversive Thriller with Terrific Leads

Abe Friedtanzer's review of Love Lies Bleeding starring Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian.
User Rating: 8

Not all relationships are built to last, and family dynamics are often complicated. Those are two major framing elements to Love Lies Bleeding, the immersive new thriller from director Rose Glass and distributor A24. This 1980s-set lesbian romance is also, as its title might suggest, extremely violent, existing at the intersection of love and brutal reality. Fortunately, that combination works marvelously, making for an extremely engaging, stylized, and watchable experience that makes excellent use of all of its assets.

Kristen Stewart stars in a role tailor-made for her as Lou, who works at a gym in New Mexico. She is first seen plunging a toilet that’s beyond clogged, and she doesn’t seem to enjoy much of her thankless job. One local, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), is clearly interested in her, but Lou doesn’t reciprocate her advances. She’s taken instead by the first sight of Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a bodybuilder from Oklahoma with a sweet sensibility that doesn’t match her muscles and determination. Jackie represents a chance at living a life that’s based on what she wants, a possibility she can’t imagine given her drive to stay where she is to watch over her sister Beth (Jena Malone) and protect her from her waste-of-space abusive husband JJ (Dave Franco).

The tone of Love Lies Bleeding is immediately established as dark and foreboding, and its universe feels very small. Many people come in to use the gym, yet Lou is captivated by Jackie when she first sees her. She then finds out that Jackie has taken a job working with JJ at the gun range owned by none other than her creepy criminal father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). It’s an understatement to say that the two Lous don’t get along, though Lou’s rejection of her father’s ways hasn’t stopped him from reminding her every chance he gets that she can’t escape her past.

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This film, which features an original script from Glass and Weronika Tofilska, positively evokes another film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that followed people taking violent action to deal with those in their midst who were even worse, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Its focus on obsessive bodybuilding also reminds me of the 2023 Sundance entry Magazine Dreams, which is unlikely ever to screen widely for audiences due to circumstances surrounding its lead actor, Jonathan Majors. Still, it contains a compelling portrayal of unsettling consequences of addictive physical activity. While comparisons could certainly be made to another recently-released lesbian crime caper, Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls, this film feels much more sinister and suave, though it too finds its sense of humor in many of its character interactions.

The technical elements of Love Lies Bleeding enhance an experience that is often breathless and intense, with one or two moments sure to draw audible cries from the audience for their sheer brutality and shock value. Striking instances of Ben Fordesman’s extremely deliberate cinematography include overhead shots of cars driving eerily through the dark night to a foreboding destination, and the costumes and hairstyling, particularly the off-putting wig extensions worn by Franco and the famously bald Harris, help to truly evoke the era and add to its already existing seediness.

Following her acclaimed 2019 debut, Saint Maud, each role in Glass’ sophomore feature feels purposely and efficiently cast. Stewart, who also anchored a very different 2024 Sundance selection, the sci-fi romance Love Me, brings a quiet aggression and grittiness to Lou, a fantastic, flawed hero whose inability to quit smoking is among her less significant vices. O’Brian, whose acting career follows her past pursuits of policework and bodybuilding and is likely recognizable to most from The Mandalorian, is magnetic as Jackie, a mesmerizing contradiction of brawn and gentleness. These two leads have phenomenal chemistry, though audiences should be warned that passionate moments are almost equally matched in frequency by vicious and disturbing sequences.

Their roles are not all that sizable, but both Malone and Baryshnikov make an impact as the two people keeping Lou tied to her roots in different ways. They manage to flesh out their characters despite minimal screen time and to make it clear both how they see and how they impact Lou. Franco emulates his brother James’ unforgettable turn in Spring Breakers but gives JJ a truly cruel edge, and Harris utilizes his token intimidating stoicism to great and frightening effect. There’s no weak link in the cast, and the only disappointment is that none of them aside from the leads are featured extensively.

A24 has established itself as a reliable purveyor of quality independent cinema, and Love Lies Bleeding definitely fits that bill. It’s a driven, focused drama that never loses sight of what it wants to be, comfortably incorporating its off-kilter aspects into a coherent and captivating narrative. In a pivot away from horror, Glass demonstrates enormous capability as a filmmaker, eliciting superb performances from her leads and delivering an electric thriller that takes audiences on a winding and worthwhile ride.

Love Lies Bleeding opens in select theaters on March 8, 2024. It expands wide on March 15.

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