Love Lies Bleeding: Pumped Up Western Noir Heavy on Style, Thrills

Star Katy M. O’Brian is compulsively watchable, an arresting mix of feminine mystique woven through a miraculously shredded body.

8 mins read

The Amaranthus caudatus, dubbed Love-Lies-Bleeding, is a plant of exotic allure, its cascades of crimson blossoms flourishing rapidly under the summer’s warmth. Yet this fiery spectacle is fleeting upon the arrival of first frost, a reminder of ephemeral beauty that brilliantly blazes before quickly fading away.

Such decisive, equally blood red bloom strikes Kristen Stewart in Rose Glass’ lesbian crime picture Love Lies Bleeding, a wild enough ride, that of the pulpy low-rent noir kind, like a paperback page turner that’s fun to read but slightly less so to think about after. In a provocation loaded with passionate sex, violence and murder, Glass flirts with a number of potent topics yet remains uncommitted, instead leaning into lurid noir twists as if a good movie they alone can make. She’s half-right, but her lack of dramatic introspection makes for an experience slightly less compelling than could have been. But fun it is. 

Co-written by Glass (Saint Maud) and Weronika Tofilska, the picture opens in a small New Mexico town circa 1989, the sort of dusty dead end where everyone knows everyone and dreamers are destined to remain stuck, including Stewart’s gym manager Lou, fixed at the front desk of the sweatshop, a milieu depicted by Glass as a sort of sweaty, testosterone-fueled hovel far from today’s tony fitness dens, and one adorned by shopworn motivational quotes (“Pain is just weakness leaving the body”). 

While the gym’s toxic male iron pumpers refer to her as a “dyke” and its demanding women order her to unclog filthy locker room toilets, softly butch Lou keeps her head down, minding her business and keeping a quiet home life, struggling to kick a nicotine addiction while dodging the pushy come-ons of coworker Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). But Lou’s quintessential loner is about to make an exception for the new girl in town, a vision named Jackie (Katy M. O’Brian), the just off the bus, hyper-ripped female bodybuilder whose Muscle Beach physique might beat the male gym rats at their own game but whose inherent sweetness and innocent smile is the stuff of, perhaps, love, at least for smitten Lou. Jackie is quite a creation, both of her own and for the screen.

What else to do but shack up and have explosively hot sex every night? Credit both actresses for going at the libidinal lust scenes with feverish eroticism of the kind mustered by Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in the Wachowski’s memorable 1996 lesbian mob thriller Bound. Never mind that bisexual Jackie has also slept with town louse JJ (a redneck sexy Dave Franco) to secure a waitressing job, and that this particular louse happens to be married to Lou’s co-dependent sister Beth (Jena Malone, terrific), who routinely finds herself on the blunt end of her husband’s flying fists. Someday, mild-mannered Lou swears, she’ll avenge her sister’s trauma. 

Jackie has big dreams, training hard for a Las Vegas bodybuilding competition, but makes a fatal mistake in reluctantly accepting a steroid injection from Lou (the performance enhancements are rampantly distributed in the gym), which soon becomes a spiraling juice addiction perpetuating radical personality shifts. Waitressing at the local shooting range, she’s taught to fire a gun by the outfit’s owner, wily Lou, Sr. (a fabulously slimy Ed Harris), who just happens to be Lou’s estranged (to put it mildly) father who less resembles his daughter than the iconic crypt keeper in Tales from the Crypt. Harris, for his part, dials up the diabolical menace. 

The movie hits its stride at the midpoint as a death, coverup and arrival of the feds complicate the budding lovers, who go dangerously reeling in opposite directions. To say more would be to speak out of school, but Glass has crafted a down and dirty, blood-soaked noir at times reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ auspicious 1984 Blood Simple debut, including a body that doesn’t stay dead, conspiring lovers, an unlikely hit man and the expected double-crosses and buried histories ripe for excavation (as are other grisly items).

This is a movie about the need for power—bodies expand to achieve near superhuman feats, while brawn also comes from the barrel of a gun; both are displays of force and instruments of destruction. Love Lies Bleeding is a subversive western in a sense, one informed by the relationship between gender and power where men may strike women—a male bodybuilder Jackie rebuffs gives her a fat lip and abused Beth is routinely beaten—but where women use the enemy’s rage-fueled tactics to ultimately defeat them. Glass’ commitment to her couple’s chemistry and fueling her lesbian Thelma and Louise, outsiders-against-the-world grim romanticism proves solid entertainment. 

Glass mounts a well-made film with impeccable period touches in its 80s’ fitness fashion and flourishes, and her special use of sound design—frequently suggesting a stretching, or ripping as Jackie’s bulging, veiny muscles (which give The Incredible Hulk a run for his money), shot in extreme close-ups of O’Brian’s impressively built stature and frame, suggest steroid shredding growth spurts.

Yet despite the picture’s merits, Jackie’s character needed additional context to be wholly understandable given the extremes of where Glass pushes her to go. One poignant payphone call back home suggests a traumatic flight; perhaps Glass should have devoted a bit more screen time to the lovers sharing such histories and a bit less to their carnal couplings. Such details, as well as the film’s darkest element—out of control ‘roid rage, used as a plot device—are left hazy. In the film’s final moments Glass also overextends with a larger-than-life, expressionistic visual to drive home her point about power, inexplicably deflating a brutally realistic climax with a device suggesting invincibility for a character that has displayed anything but. Can true love really conquer the gauntlet of traumas on display?

Special mention goes to O’Brian as the kindhearted Jackie, with suggested body image issues pushed to frightening extremes by her need to be worthy, the best and loved. The star is compulsively watchable, an arresting mix of feminine mystique woven through a miraculously shredded body. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

3 stars

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