LOVE LIES BLEEDING Review: Queer Neo-Noir Enters Uncharted Territory

Kristen Stewart, Katy O'Brian, Jena Malone, Anna Baryshnikov, Dave Franco, and Ed Harris star in writer/director Rose Glass' film.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
LOVE LIES BLEEDING Review: Queer Neo-Noir Enters Uncharted Territory

Filmmaker Rose Glass’s first film, Saint Maud, justly received plaudits for its disturbingly deep dive into faith, fanaticism, and madness.

Her follow-up, Love Lies Bleeding, a queer neo-noir set in 1989 New Mexico, continues her exploration of psychological extremes, specifically the familiar iteration of lust and love that can lead to obsessive mania, the occasional murder motivated by righteous rage or self-preservation, and messy, post-murder clean-ups.

Love Lies Bleeding centers on Lou (Kristin Stewart), the aimless 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. Even as Lou tends to the clogged toilet, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), Lou’s occasional hook-up, awkwardly tries to engage her in casual conversation.

It goes badly for the desperately naive, willfully clueless Daisy. Her stubborn refusal to accept Lou’s rejection, a seeming one-off, tone-setting scene, however, eventually reverberates through Love Lies Bleeding's increasingly destabilizing narrative.

When Lou spots Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a bodybuilder new to town, working out by herself at the gym, it’s lust at first sight. Jackie’s fanatical dedication to sculpting her body into a work of art immediately intrigues Lou.

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

It’s not noir or neo-noir, however, without the violence and murder that define the genre. Jackie falls 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), is. Beth lives in constant denial about the violently abusive JJ, 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 in a skullet), the owner-operator of a popular gun range and the local kingpin/gang lord. Despite living in the same small, cramped 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. Narrative-wise, Jackie’s arrival in town functions as the catalyst that upends the unstable status quo between Lou and her father (among others).

Glass and her co-screenwriter, Weronika Tofilska, intimately understand noir conventions at a deep, granular level. 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.

Deeply understanding noir 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 emotionally vulnerable performance and O’Brian’s intensely enthralling one. Stewart’s performance, however, doesn’t count as a surprise. She’s been too good for too long for anyone to expect anything less than a nuanced, layered performance. O’Brian, making the outsized leap from supporting roles, does (surprise, that is).

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

Elevated by Ben Fordesman’s stellar cinematography, Clint Mansell’s electronic score, and top-to-bottom committed performances from the cast, Love Lies Bleeding has all the attributes to become a cult classic among and between adventure-seeking movie watchers. 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.

Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival in January. A24 Films will release the film on March 8, only in movie theaters. Visit the official site for more information.

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Anna BaryshnikovDave FrancoEd HarrisJena MaloneKaty O'BrianKristen StewartRose Glass

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