Review: Love Lies Bleeding

Violence is everywhere in the small New Mexico town at the center of Love Lies Bleeding, from the bullets echoing from the nearby shooting range to the bruises on a wife’s face from her husband’s now-bloody knuckles. There’s no room for softness or vulnerability amidst the brutality; if you display any weakness, you’ll just get beaten to a pulp, even by those who say they love you. And maybe they do — especially in the case of the queer couple at the heart of this wonderfully dark neon noir — but that doesn’t mean they’ll never hurt you.

We first encounter Lou (Kristen Stewart) when she’s elbow deep in a toilet at the gym where she works, attempting to unclog someone’s giant protein-powder dump. Our initial encounter with new girl in town Jackie (Katy O’Brian) is equally unglamorous; mulleted dirtbag JJ (Dave Franco) is balls deep in her, promising a job at the local shooting range for her efforts. But when Lou and Jackie meet, they immediately connect: Lou is entranced by Jackie’s bodybuilder physique and innate toughness, and Jackie is equally taken by Lou’s matter-of-fact manner and clear interest. Lou’s baseball tees and muscle tanks give her a cool air; she seems unflappable until she very much is not. Despite Lou’s best efforts, the lovers can’t escape Lou’s family drama, from the domestic abuse suffered by her sister, Beth (Jena Malone), to the shady underworld ruled by her father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). 

Set in 1989, Love Lies Bleeding doesn’t just focus on the hot, tumultuous romance between these two women; it also centers on bodies and their abilities, addictions, and desires. Most of its characters exert efforts to master their physical selves through sheer force of will, whether it’s Lou’s attempts to quit smoking or Jackie’s work to win an upcoming bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. The presence of bodybuilding enforces the themes of love, pain, and the extremes you’ll go to; you have to break down the muscles to build them up.

There’s a constant buzz of motivational messaging throughout Love Lies Bleeding. The gym walls have the standard eye roll-inducing inspirational signs that scream “No pain no gain,” “Only losers quit,” and ”Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Jackie’s water bottle declares she is “Dedicated,” as we see her work through a regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups with the kind of ease and good form that says these movements are habit. A Las Vegas marquee states, “You have to see it to believe it,” hinting at the truly wild shit to come. Some beats in the plot feel expected, but it takes such crazy turns that it leaves you breathless at its audacity, especially in its final act. 

It’s rare to see women in film exerting this level of physical power and expressing this kind of rage. O’Brian is mesmerizing in her ferociousness, consuming everything (except the yolks in eggs, of course) and being absolutely jacked in a way that women don’t generally get to be on screen. Meanwhile, as Lou, Stewart has an appealing DGAF attitude, until she grits her teeth and has to handle the next crisis with resilience. Her past might have messed her up, but it’s also left her capable of doing what needs to be done. 

Love Lies Bleeding is grimy, grim stuff as past and present traumas threaten to resurface for these broken people, with unsettling flashbacks bathed in red light. Yet it’s shockingly funny at times, if you’re the type who can’t help barking out a laugh at blackly comic elements. With her co-writer Weronika Tofilska, director Rose Glass has made an utterly electric film; it’s exhilarating in how far and how hard it’s willing to go. The violence is super gnarly, continuing to rub your face in the utter annihilation of someone’s face after a grisly murder. That “No pain no gain” aphorism on the gym wall could apply to Glass’s approach; this is not easy viewing with likable characters with clear moral centers. Glass made her debut with the equally hard-to-watch Saint Maud, and Loves Lies Bleeding shares DNA with that movie’s horror genre, though this is more of a thriller. It’s so violent at times that it dares you to look away.

But even if you averted your eyes, you couldn’t avoid the sounds. Supervising sound designer Paul Davies and his team have done some truly nasty, truly evocative work with the crunch of bones and the wet squish of flesh. Clint Mansell’s unnerving synth score of eerie high-pitched tones and low hums keeps the audience squirming.

With all its darkness, Love Lies Bleeding should be a real bummer, but I found it an absolute blast that left me buzzing with energy and eager to talk about it to anyone who will listen. It ends on such a sickly funny note that audiences will either cackle with glee or shake their heads in disgust as they sprint for the exit. Glass and her team have crafted a marvelous film at first glance, but great little details reveal themselves on a second viewing (if you can stomach another go-round). I know we’ve been bad (though maybe not as bad as these people), but we deserve more movies like this blood-soaked gem.

A-

“Love Lies Bleeding” is out Friday in limited release.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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