Thriller ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ has its head in the clouds and its foot in its mouth

The film is genuinely fun, freaky and frightening—but the lack of consistency can leave viewers feeling lost

When things don’t go the way you expect, it can be shocking. This is true if you are, say, the sinister patriarch of a wealthy family full of dark secrets, whose daughter and protegé elects not to follow in your dastardly footsteps. Or if you are, perhaps, a horrible creep who believes you should be allowed to brutalize your wife with impunity, only to find you’ve got another think coming. Or if you’re someone who expected to spend the afternoon judging a bodybuilding competition, only to find yourself watching arguably the hottest woman alive (Katy O’Brian as Jackie Cleaver) do some symbolically charged puking before launching a violent attack on the next person she sees.

Or if you’re, say, me, who recently ended up watching all three of these scenarios—plus toe-sucking!—play out onscreen at a Sundance premiere of Love Lies Bleeding, the new feature-length film by British director Rose Glass. As I shifted in my narrow theatre seat, smearing ink everywhere in a note-taking frenzy, I could see I’d badly misunderstood the premise of the film: I’d initially thought it was going to be a kind of darkly camp killing spree; then, as the first half hour passed and I reassessed, it seemed like it was going to be gritty. By the end I’d realized it was grasping for both without necessarily grabbing hold of either.

How far will you go to protect the people you love, and will you still recognize yourself when you get there? These are the questions that lie at the hammering heart of Glass’s film. Love Lies Bleeding is a romantic thriller that follows the doomed love affair and criminal escapades of Lou (Kristen Stewart), a moody gym manager who is perpetually quitting smoking, and Jackie, a magnetic drifter training for a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. 

The movie is tense and pulpy right from the start, with Clint Mansell’s eerie score evoking an ambience of science fiction. Ed Harris (in the role of the skeletal Lou Sr., father to K-Stew’s Lou) toys cruelly with a grub that twists in his grasp, displaying the dynamic that will define his relationship to his daughter throughout the film. As Lou goes about her dreary life—thrusting her arm down clogged toilets at the gym, fending off an ex’s advances and masturbating forlornly on the threadbare sofa while her cat samples the abandoned TV dinner at her feet—she is tortured by crimson-tinged flashes of her father, and of guns. 

Tonally, I figured we were in for darkness and desperation. I found myself waiting for Love Lies Bleeding to cough up the details of the Ozark-esque mystery the trailer seemed to have promised me, only for the film to take an unexpectedly surrealist turn with an unsettling scene in which Jackie, clad in her glamorous bodybuilder bikini, coughs up a slime-covered Lou, instead. Perhaps I should have listened closer to Mansell’s synths to ascertain the vibes.

 

Despite the tonal confusion, the love that blossoms between Lou and Jackie is what I expected. Is it sweet? Truly. Is it hot? Absolutely. O’Brian and Stewart have great chemistry. Plus, it warms my heart to imagine young queers, giddily watching an R-rated movie under the covers after lights out, the first generation with internet access to have their perception of intimacy shaped by relatively realistic lesbian sex.

Although Jackie almost immediately begins injecting herself with the steroids that Lou offers her like an earnest valentine upon their very first meeting—and although she experiences mysterious physical and behavioural effects ranging from hallucinations to extreme anger—the pair are still having a nice time together, and it’s genuinely delightful to watch. That said, the film doesn’t address the charged nature of presenting a plot in which testosterone injections make a person uncontrollably violent, in a landscape where anyone with high testosterone levels who isn’t a cis man is persecuted as a danger, and an outlier in the world of sport. 

The steroids’ effects on Jackie aren’t always easy to follow, considering how little we know about her from before she showed up at Lou’s gym. But it’s clear that they become a habit, making her impossibly fast, and strong. The tension is building. At any moment, the sinister forces of the gun-running, grub-torturing Lou Sr. will come calling to interrupt Lou and Jackie’s shredded bliss. 

“‘Love Lies Bleeding’ blurs the line between reality and hallucination, between fantasy and nightmare.” 

The violence begins in earnest soon after—but as it turns out, it doesn’t come from Lou Sr. It begins instead with Lou’s sister, Beth (Jena Malone), being beaten so severely by her husband JJ (Dave Franco) that she ends up unconscious in the hospital. The brutal onscreen violence can be hard to take, and can make it difficult for audience members to decide whether or not the movie is supposed to be fun to watch. As the plot spirals skyward into further echelons of absurdity, some viewers will likely remain grounded by the brutality. Most of the violence is not particularly stylized. Rather, it plays straight, while the rest of the film becomes increasingly delirious. For some, the chain of murders—and inversion of expectation about who is a perpetrator and who is a victim—may feel righteous. For others, it will feel gruelling.

Love Lies Bleeding blurs the line between reality and hallucination, between fantasy and nightmare, and between “fucked-up movie about a fucked-up family,” a genre we’ve learned to take relatively seriously, and “camp romp where your faves are 50 feet tall, knocking into nimbus clouds and Dave Franco gets tossed down a yonic chasm and set on fire.” 

Contradiction imbues the film at every level. In some cases, it works great: many shots pull in as wide an expanse of sky as possible while constructing the vastness not as a freedom, but as a cage, where real and imagined surveillance and generational curses always have a bird’s eye view. Rather than denoting freedom, it reminds us how very far our characters can go and still not be out of our sight. Anna Baryshnikov is delightfully unsettling as Daisy, a character whose childish mannerisms belie a conniving mind and devious drive (one that audiences may even recognize in themselves: the drive to spend as much time as possible looking at Kristen Stewart). But when it comes to the story itself, and the feeling I came away with, these contradictions have a muddying effect.

Love Lies Bleeding has aspirations of glamour, best realized in dazzling montages of Jackie flexing and posing. But it doesn’t seem to realize how seriously its more violent components might hit for some viewers, or the dissonance that might be created when those are set against a backdrop of increasingly campy delirium. Ultimately, Love Lies Bleeding feels like it has all the pieces, but somehow doesn’t quite cohere. The film will be released in theatres in Canada on March 15 and in the U.S. on March 8.

Lindsay Lee Wallace (she/her) is an English-speaking freelance writer and overthinker focused on culture, digital spaces, and health care inequity. Her work can also be found in TIMESlateSELF, and Bitch. She is based in New York City.

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