Love Lies Bleeding is an Eerie, Electric Body-Horror Thriller

I loved Love Lies Bleeding, the otherworldly, lesbian body-horror drifter-thriller from director Rose Glass. As suggested by that long epithet, there is a lot going on in this movie, the volume of which makes the film’s thematic and even narrative succinctness all the more impressive. Kristen Stewart plays Lou (sometimes Lou Lou), the taciturn, hardworking manager of a warehouse gym in a suburban backwater of Albuquerque in 1989. She’s the one who gets things done, who cleans up messes. Her life is hardly glamorous; when we first see her, she’s unclogging a gym toilet with gloved hands, reaching into a murky nebula of shit without complaining or even wincing.

Her life changes when a stranger comes to town: Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a drifter, a young bodybuilder looking for opportunities to work and train as she makes her way to a competition in Vegas. The initial sparks between them are voltaic, and it’s not long before the two kindle a romance. But it’s also not long before that romance is seriously complicated by Lou’s rampantly dysfunctional family, mostly in the form of her abusive wastrel brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco), and her local crime kingpin father Lou Sr. (an excessively creepy Ed Harris, with a hairstyle that I will never forget). Lou only sticks around to try to protect her sister Beth (the can-do character actress Jena Malone) and her little nephews; she hasn’t spoken to her father for many years, probably since around the time her mother left.

The film, co-written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska and (fittingly) produced by A24, is as much Jackie’s story as Lou’s, even though we see the inner-workings of Lou’s life of “trying to keep things together” more than we do Jackie’s. Jackie’s clear homelessness and delight at having a home is as evident as Lou’s gratefulness at being able to take care of someone who makes it feel worth it. Jackie, like Lou, is haunted by her past, and also suppresses feelings of fear and anger in order to make it through life. But when things go awry, and both women wind up grappling with their fates in the only ways they know how, the film begins hurtles into a satisfying thriller.

The film doesn’t feel merely suspenseful as it does deeply ominous; shots of the enormous, New Mexico sky, the barren desert, and a mysterious, crater-like gorge that glows red in Lou’s memories (not to mention the myriad creepy sound cues that pepper the story; this film should be an early Oscar contender for Best Sound) all set up the feeling that there’s something deeper, darker swirling in the air in this part of the word. Theremin warbles in the soundtrack and mysterious crunching noises under Jackie’s skin promise the supernatural, make the whole thing feel altogether alien, but Love Lies Bleeding is ultimately more interested in finding its paranormal activity in normal matter: human bodies, mostly, and their cavities and fluids and even, uh, capabilities.

There’s lots to be captivated by, from the galactic cinematography by Ben Fordesman to a particularly unsettling performance by Anna Baryshnikov, to pulsating editing work from Mark Towns. I found myself spellbound by Stewart’s performance; here, she wields her trademark reservedness to convey fathoms of pain, betrayal, frustration, fear, and desperate, desperate love. She also gets to be a little bit funny, which she’s very good at. (While we’re hashing Oscar speculations, where is Stewart’s Oscar nomination, I ask you?)

Love Lies Bleeding is a gutsy (sometimes literally), bloody (oftentimes literally) effort, an impressive mobilization of lots of familiar tropes into something that feels both knowledgeable and new. How many times have we seen (and loved) that roving road shot, where the camera is strapped in between two headlights of a car barreling down the center of an empty highway at night? Additions like this tune the vibes of Love Lies Bleeding to just the right frequency of chilling neo-noir. It’s a film about how you never know what will emerge from the darkness: your greatest nightmare or your greatest love. Or maybe both.

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