Home » Kristen Stewart’s Ultra-Violent, Sex-Filled Lesbian Thriller

Kristen Stewart’s Ultra-Violent, Sex-Filled Lesbian Thriller

PARK CITY, Utah—A hot-blooded crime story whose affectations outweigh its subversions, Love Lies Bleeding is faux-noir that finds Rose Glass struggling to strike an authentically sleazy, sensual chord. As with her prior Saint Maud, the English writer/director delivers quite a few grim and grisly sights with her sophomore outing, all while putting a sapphic feminist spin on a traditional genre tale. Yet despite its explicit flair and committed performances from Kristen Stewart as a middle-of-nowhere loner and Katy O’Brian as the bodybuilder who drifts into her town, her bed and her family’s twisted hostilities, the film’s provocations are strained and its desperate passions a pose.

Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Love Lies Bleeding opens by descending into a hellish ravine, then turning upwards toward the heavenly nighttime stars, and finally settling in-between them on a fitness center where Lou (Stewart) is busy unclogging a toilet as blonde-haired Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) pesters her with date requests and unsuccessful attempts to fool around. Glass situates us in this grungy 1989 milieu by fixating on bulging biceps, chests, nipples, and veins getting pumped up by patrons who are supposed to be encouraged by signs on the wall blaring motivational bromides. Between rejecting Daisy and listening to audio tapes designed to help her quit smoking, Lou is a woman fighting to practice restraint. That’s complicated, however, by the arrival of Jackie (O’Brian), who struts into Lou’s workplace with tremendous confidence and glistening muscles that cause her to immediately lose her self-control.

Having departed her native Oklahoma in vague disgrace, Jackie is passing through this dusty community on her way to Las Vegas, where she intends to compete in a bodybuilding competition. On her first night in the area, she screws JJ (Dave Franco) in his Camaro and subsequently sleeps beside the highway. After a workout, Jackie responds to Lou’s flirtation and punches (and takes a retaliatory punch from) a bruiser who mocks her for spending time with the “dyke.” That night, Lou takes Jackie back to her dingy place for some sweaty and vigorous sex. During this and their later carnal encounters, Stewart and O’Brian knock around bedrooms and do dirty things in bathrooms, but they’re both trying too hard to be fervently X-rated, undercutting their mild yin-yang chemistry and turning the material’s erotic elements labored.

There are traces of Blood Simple, Wild at Heart, and Killer Joe in Love Lies Bleeding, whose lineage is so long that it’s nearly impossible to discuss it without making routine comparisons to its numerous predecessors. Incapable of tapping into legitimate pulp seediness, perversion, or danger, Rose resorts to tawdry pantomime. In many ways, the film feels like the noir companion piece to last year’s Saltburn—all shallow, titillating incitement and little substance. Lou and Jackie’s amour is uninhibited and hungry, and it’s further juiced by the former’s decision to offer her new girlfriend anabolic steroids. A shot of Lou sticking a needle into Jackie’s ass is the mirror-image of Jackie’s front-seat rendezvous with JJ, a rat-tailed cretin who works at the shooting range where Jackie gets a waitressing job, and who’s the abusive husband to Lou’s doormat sister Beth (Jena Malone). Franco layers on the rural depravity as a man who thinks he can do whatever he pleases, and that cockiness is shared by his boss Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), who’s the madman father that Lou once served but now detests.

Glass goes deliberately overboard on colorful details, from Lou Sr.’s fondness for bugs to Daisy’s meth-stained yellow teeth. The director revels in the opportunity to roll around in this grime, and her script (co-penned by Weronika Tofilska) kicks into frenzied gear once JJ puts Beth in the hospital with ghastly injuries and Jackie takes it upon herself to dole out justice in the most brutal manner imaginable. This is Love Lies Bleeding’s high point when it comes to gruesomeness, although blood, puke, and mutilation follow, as do panicked attempts to make sure that this homicide goes undetected. In that endeavor, Lou turns out to be the more level-headed of the two. Transformed into an unstable ’roid-rager, Jackie flees to Vegas for her bodybuilding meet, resulting in the film’s most unhinged sequence: a hallucinatory Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-style meltdown that concludes with someone suffering gravely courtesy of Jackie’s fists.

To cover up Jackie’s murder, Lou opts to kill two birds with one stone by devising a plan that’ll expose her dad’s true villainy. FBI agents and crooked cops are both pawns in this increasingly helter-skelter game. Alas, given how sloppily much of it plays out, Glass makes clear that she cares less about lucid plotting than about her characters’ awful hairstyles (led by Harris’ bald-on-top, long-down-the-back eyesore) and Clint Mansell’s score of synthesizers, chimes, and horns. Additionally high on her list of priorities are copious lustful looks between Stewart and O’Brian, here envisioned as a modern-day Thelma and Louise-ish pair who are motivated by their desire for each other and to escape their miserable lots in life. Even crediting them with that generic goal, however, is rather generous, since Love Lies Bleeding lacks the cogent narrative, concise characterizations, and shocking twists of the best dime-store stories.

The faster it barrels ahead, the bolder Love Lies Bleeding becomes, and the proceedings’ freewheeling breakneck daring does produce some minor fleeting excitement. Unfortunately, Glass’ risks rarely pay off, peaking with a climax of preposterous Hulking-out fantasies and illogically easy resolutions. Vaginal crevasses, insect-chomping, and lurid red-tinted flashbacks are also part of this wannabe-extreme affair, whose surprises are scant and whose squishy, sticky body-horror romance isn’t even up to the standards of Luca Guadagnino’s recent Bones and All. Stewart radiates furious intensity, O’Brian proves to be a confidently expressive screen presence, and the duo’s handful of quiet moments together are illuminated by flickers of genuine humanity. Too bad there’s nothing beneath the surface of this fashionably squalid tale, which—right through to a conclusion that opts for comforting rah-rah optimism rather than the bleakness it occasionally wears on its sleeve—boasts a fan-fiction quality that it never manages to shake.


January 2024