Sundance 2024 Review: LOVE LIES BLEEDING, Queer Neo-Noir Enthralls and Stuns in Equal Measure

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: LOVE LIES BLEEDING, Queer Neo-Noir Enthralls and Stuns in Equal Measure

Three years ago, writer-director Rose Glass’ feature film debut, Saint Maud, justly received plaudits for its disturbingly deep dive into faith, fanaticism, and insanity.

Her second film, Love Lies Bleeding, a queer neo-noir set in 1989 New Mexico, continues Glass'  exploration of psychological extremes, specifically the not-unfamiliar iteration of love, usually, but not exclusively romantic, that can lead to obsessive fixation, the occasional murder motivated by righteous rage or self-preservation, and messy, post-murder clean-ups.

Love Lies Bleeding initially centers on Lou (Kristin Stewart), the night manager of a gym located on the outskirts of a dusty, dirty New Mexico town. Glass introduces Lou at literally one of the lowest points in her life, unstopping a clogged toilet in the gym’s bathroom while Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), the gym’s receptionist and Lou’s occasional hook-up, tries to engage her in conversation.

It goes about as expected for the naively, desperately optimistic Daisy. Her willful refusal to accept Lou’s rejection, a seeming one-off, tone-setting scene, however, eventually reverberates through Love Lies Bleeding's increasingly destabilized narrative.

When Lou spots Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a newly arrived bodybuilder, working out at the gym, it’s not quite love at first sight, but it’s close. Jackie’s borderline fanatical dedication to her craft, into sculpting her body into a work of art, immediately fascinates the virtually aimless Lou.

Like all strivers powered by need, want, and will, Jackie has an American Dream of her own, competing in an upcoming bodybuilding contest in Las Vegas. But for the immediate moment, a bed, food, and more importantly, Lou’s romantic attention, are more than enough to keep Jackie occupied.

It’s not noir or neo-noir, however, without the obligatory conflict, violence, and eventually murder that define the genre. Jackie might fall into a standard noir category, the drifter with an unknown past and a murky future, but Lou represents something altogether different: she’s not tied to the town by an ill-suited romantic relationship, but her older sister, Beth (Jena Malone), married to the boorish, thuggish, mullet-loving JJ (Dave Franco), certainly is. Beth lives in constant denial about JJ’s destructive behavior, passively accepting fault for the periodic bursts of temper that have left her repeatedly bruised, battered, and beaten.

For Lou, the family ties that bind extend to Lou Sr. (Ed Harris, terrifying), the owner of a local gun range and the local kingpin/gang lord. Despite sharing the same town, Lou and Lou Sr. haven’t talked in more than a decade, but that changes once Jackie, employed at the range hours before meeting Lou at the gym, enters their lives. Not surprisingly, Jackie’s arrival in town represents the inciting incident or catalyst that upends the status quo in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

Noir and neo-noir tropes dictate that violence, extreme, brutal, and ultra will inevitably follow (the more extreme, brutal, and ultra, the better), touching major and minor characters, often to devastating, immutable effect. That Glass and her co-screenwriter, Weronika Tofilska, intimately understand noir conventions at a deep, granular level is never in doubt.

Understanding noir deeply allows Glass and Tofilska to savagely subvert those same tropes, consciously avoiding surface-deep alterations without meaning or purpose while also boldly introducing a slab of surrealism into the proceedings that ultimately sends Love Lies Bleeding into uncharted narrative territory.

Much attention will — and should — be paid to Stewart’s achingly vulnerable performance and O’Brian’s intensely enthralling one. Stewart’s performance certainly doesn’t qualify as a surprise. She’s been too good for too long for anyone to expect anything less than a nuanced, layered performance, but O’Brian, making the outsized leap from supporting roles in various media, does (surprise, that is). In short, she gives nothing less than a revelatory performance.

As the brooding, body-obsessed Jackie, O’Brian delivers an unquestionably career-defining, star-making performance. Hopefully, O’Brian’s future will be filled with similarly risk-taking, standout roles.

Elevated by Ben Fordesman’s stellar cinematography, Clint Mansell’s typically propulsive electronic score, and top-to-bottom performances, Love Lies Bleeding seems all but destined to become a cult classic, watched and re-watched by obsessive fans. Just as likely, academics and critics will deconstruct and reconstruct Love Lies Bleeding’s multi-layered narrative, themes, and its ultimate ranking within the neo-noir canon.

Love Lies Bleeding premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. A24 Films will release the film theatrically on March 8.

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Anna BaryshnikovDave FrancoEd HarrisKaty O'BrianKristen StewartLove Lies BleedingRose GlassWeronika Tofilska

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