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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Is ‘Be Gay, Do Crimes: The Movie’

Bodybuilding! Toe-sucking! Ed Harris in a bad wig! This queer neo-noir slayfest has it all.

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Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart in ‘Love Lies Bleeding’

If you head in to Love Lies Bleeding to watch Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian fuck each other and murder dudes—and why else would you be there?—you will not be disappointed. Some quibbling aesthetes might suggest that even a euphorically nihilist lesbian death trip needs a little something more to succeed, and I’ll admit, for a half-hour or so I worried that director Rose Glass’s second film was too nutty to be a good movie and yet not nutty enough to be a great one. After [SPOILER REDACTED], that concern felt stupidly quaint.

Not that anything as silly as “greatness” is on Glass’s agenda. The British director’s bleak, tense 2019 debut, Saint Maud—another movie about both the interdependence of two damaged women and the strength gained through mortification of the body—approached psychological insight more conventionally, in its horror-tinged A24-ish way. Here the camera zooms in on every gunshot wound and needle jab as though seeking maximum audience discomfort, and even the yolks slopped into a garbage can while Stewart cooks a egg-white omelet have a disquieting sensuality to them. Glass indulges in trashy excess for the sake of sheer sensation and, as with the best pulp, splatters some broad truths about desire onto the screen in the process.

The film opens in a gym plastered with cliche messages like “PAIN IS JUST WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY,”  its initial shots beefy, male, and unenticing—everything the film will prove not to be. Images of hairy chests and sweaty nipples seem to revel in the fleshy, unerotic potential of the human body. And we’re introduced to our two lovers in truly unglamorous moments as well. Lou (Stewart) is hand-cleaning a clogged toilet in that gym, where she works; Jackie (O’Brian) is getting banged from behind in a car by a local sleaze named J.J. (Dave Franco) in the hopes that he’ll help land her a job. (He also happens to be Lou’s brother-in-law.) The shit-scooping seems the less onerous task. 

In true noir fashion, Jackie is a drifter, en route from an Oklahoma childhood to a bodybuilding competition in Vegas, stopping off in New Mexico because that’s the sort of place these stories happen. (It’s also 1989, for seemingly no other reason than to suggest the neo-noir aesthetic predates whatever future we’re all living in; the topically if not quite stylistically overlapping Drive-Away Dolls took place in 1999, as if to emphasize that movies like this only happened in the 20th century.) There’s something exotic and unreal about the American Southwest to Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman, who also shot Saint Maud. The sky is unnaturally starry, and if they’re not going to pass up the classics, like the driver’s POV shots of endless, barely lit desert highway rolling away at night, Love Lies Bleeding also features some of the most aesthetically pleasing shots of the foundation of an highway overpass that you’ll ever see. I don’t think an American could have captured them.

That setting is Lou’s home, and she’s a small-town lifer, albeit one somehow hip enough to own a copy of Pat Califia’s Macho Sluts. Her ambitions seem no greater than keeping her distance from her creepo dad, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris, in a fantastic Crypt Keeper wig), dodging a clingy, horned up local ditz (a wonderful Anna Baryshnikov, who winds up in the wrong place at the right time and then vice versa), and protecting her normie sister (Jena Malone, exploiting her facial similarities with Stewart) from ol’ J.J., who has the mustache of a guy who probably beats his wife (as he does) and the overall demeanor of a guy likely to be murdered by an angry lesbian (as he will). 

Then Lou sees Jackie pumping iron across a crowded gym, and it’s lust at first glance. The two flirt briefly in the parking lot before some meathead spoils the mood and Jackie gets ready to throw down, in the first of many sudden bursts of rage that feel both scary and exciting. You can see why these fits would turn Lou on, and how quickly she tags Jackie as someone she can care for in her messily codependent way. 

Maybe that also explains the steroids that Lou fetches for her new crush back at the gym; she overcomes Jackie’s reticence to use artificial enhancers as “Stars Fell on Alabama” plays faintly and romantically in the background and serves up the first injection as a kind of pharmaceutical foreplay. (“Where do you want it?” “In the butt.”) Soon they’re pawing at each other and not much longer after that they’re basically an item. Following their first night together, Jackie asks to shack up (cue lesbian U-Haul jokes) and she can barely offer to sleep on the couch before Lou blurts “No, shut the fuck up, you can stay here” with Kristen-Stewartly impatience. 

But drugs, as movies have long shown us, are bad. Jackie begins to hulk out (some great rippling muscle images, complete with sound effects) and roid rage hardly improves her temper. That could certainly cause problems in a movie where so many men deserve to die. Lou has drug problems of her own. She’s been listening to cassettes to kick a nicotine addiction, but it *Lloyd Bridges voice* looks like she picked the wrong week to quit smoking. And not just because of the body count or the FBI agents sniffing around for evidence of Lou Sr.’s crimes—while disposing of one corpse, she’s tempted by a pack of Vantage (a very 1989 cig brand, to be sure).


What makes Kristen Stewart a true movie star, aside from her tetchy sexuality and charismatically boyish slouch, is that she’s always Kristen Stewart before she’s anything else. Probably no director has gotten Stewart’s appeal quite like Olivier Assayas, and if Glass didn’t learn from him she’s got the same instincts. In Assayas’s two films with Stewart he showcased the magnetic awkwardness with which she navigates ambiguous power dynamics (The Clouds of Sils Maria) and the put-upon hyper-competence she exhibits when forced to do someone’s dirty work (Personal Shopper). Love Lies Bleeding elaborates thrillingly on both of these aspects of her persona.

Stewart also has the worst poker face in Hollywood, and she uses it to maximum effect here. She seems too preoccupied with whatever’s on her mind to have the energy to conceal it, and paradoxically her transparency makes her seem like she’s always hiding something. And another thing that makes Stewart a great movie star? Just about every hairstyle looks good on her—if anything, she makes Lou’s mullet appear too fashionable.

As the Laura Harring to Stewart’s Naomi Watts, O’Brian’s characterization of Jackie is no less complex, balancing an intense physicality with a kind of inert placidity. Lou, if you haven’t guessed, is short for Louise, but O’Brian’s Jackie (or sometimes Jack) is hardly her Thelma. Much of the frisson here comes from how the couple’s codependency shifts around, with neither woman settling into a stable role. Jackie is the sinewy stud, but Lou makes the first move, and Lou becomes Jackie’s caretaker during training. This is as perverse a shape-shifting love story as Phantom Thread, with roids subbing for shrooms.

That relationship is also explicitly sexual. At a time when many are understandably weary of the cinema of doomed lesbian yearning, Glass prefers fucking, garishly stylized without falling into softcore straight-eye-for-the-queer-gal “now let’s watch the babes go at it” routines. The sex can be sensually clinical (Lou demands that Jackie demonstrate how she masturbates), dizzyingly romantic (they make out on the edge of a ravine as smoke plumes from an incinerated Camaro down below), or a little more than some want to see (toes are sucked). 

Somehow this last moment elicited as audibly grossed out a reaction as some of the grislier moments. Part of the fun of Love Lies Bleeding is the crowd’s uncertain reaction, especially when we’re determining whether you should giggle or ewww. Wait, was that death funny, or was that just a laugh of shock or discomfort? Why is it harder to watch a needle poke skin than to look at a corpse missing half its jaw? Is that guy making threats a menace or a joke? 

Those gray areas make an ideal haunt for Ed Harris, who at 73 has settled in wonderfully to the “weird old guy” phase of his career.  “He’s beyond sickening” is how Lou describes him when she discovers that Jackie is waitressing at her dad’s gun range. (Gun ranges have waitresses?) He does unspecified bad shit that seems to involve smuggling guns over the border and that has resulted in a bunch of skeletons collecting at the bottom of that ravine I mentioned earlier. He shouts “What do I pay you for?” at cops and raises beetles, because every creep needs a hobby. He’s even a little loathesomely seductive when teaching Jackie how to fire a gun.

As the knot tightens around the lovers, generating a titillating claustrophobia à la Jim Thompson, the question becomes whether Lou’s brains will save Jackie or Jackie’s brawn will save Lou, or whether theirs is the sort of love that dooms them both. Not till the final scene are the roles they’ve chosen to play in this relationship finally clear. Love, Glass seems to say, means never complaining about disposing of your sweetheart’s murder victims.

GRADE: A-

Love Lies Bleeding is now showing in area theaters.

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