Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Review: Love Lies Bleeding

A24's new sapphic psychological thriller is a wildly entertaining look at revenge, body horror, and attraction

For months prior to the release of director Rose Glass's Love Lies Bleeding, the lesbian internet has been absolutely ablaze with speculation and anticipation. With a Kristen Stewart-helmed gay love story set in 1980's New Mexico, how could it not? Discussions of its cinematic forbears bubbled to the surface: It was obviously going to take stylistic cues from the neo-noir Wachoski-directed Bound (1996) and the stark and beautiful setting from Desert Hearts (1985). Beyond that, we weren't sure. After viewing, I can confirm that it did indeed crib from these stories, but it also is its own beast, with an added magical realism element that only A24 films can pull off.

The Plot

Jackie, a jacked drifter played by Katy O'Brian (nerds may remember her as ex-Imperial officer Elia Kane from The Mandalorian) roams into a sleepy New Mexico town in 1989, training at the gym Lou (Kristen Stewart) manages. The two hit it off and embark on a whirlwind romance as Jackie trains for a bodybuilding competition, with Lou providing illegal anabolic steroids and whipping up protein egg-white omelets for her new live-in girlfriend.

When Lou's sister (played by Jena Malone) ends up in the hospital after a severe domestic violence incident at the hands of her husband, Lou is irate. Jackie, with both the motivation (her desire to take care of Lou) and the power (her steroid use has not only increased her muscle mass but also her rage), steals away and gives him a taste of his own medicine—only she can't control her vitriol and she beats him so horrifically he ends up dead.

Lou finds out and helps Jackie dispose of the body in a canyon. How does she know this secret crime-dumping location? We soon learn Lou's dad is the town gangster/gun runner (and also Jackie's new boss at the gun range), so it's part of the family business. Jackie freaks out, and instead of lying low, hitchhikes to Las Vegas to make the bodybuilding competition. Once there, her steroid use upends her sense of reality, and she ends up hallucinating, vomiting, and maniacally beating up yet another person, which lands her in jail.

Lou's dad (an excellent bald Ed Harris with glorious long extensions) bails her out. Then, he convinces her to kill the woman who saw Lou and Jackie the night they hid the body. As evil and horrible a father as he may be, he still wants to protect Lou.

The movie ends with Lou and Jackie reuniting and facing off against her father. The ending, however, isn't straightforward. All throughout the movie, we've seen glimpses of magical reality. Jackie's biceps and muscles bulge, squeak, and swell. Her hallucinations at the competition are vivid and disgusting, but seem entirely real.

The end of the movie is no less surreal, as Jackie grows to 50 feet tall—very She-Hulk or 50-Foot Woman. She smashes Lou's father, but decides not to kill him, leaving him for the police. Did it really happen? Or is it just a metaphor for her preternatural size and strength, which isn't common in women?

The movie leaves you wondering what is real and what isn't, and some folks will find that it completely takes them out of the movie and kind of ruins it. I loved it—it was weird and unexpected and yet entirely fitting.

The Relationship

Love Lies Bleeding doesn't work without Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart—their on-screen chemistry and relationship is incredibly, compellingly watchable. The scene where they first meet in the gym is a prime example of the female gaze. Lou can't take her eyes off Jackie as she moves through her warm-up and workout, and a few short hours later, they end up in Lou's bed. Some critics have criticized the movie as muscle fetishization, but I think it's something different. As I mentioned earlier, traditionally "attractive" female bodies—now, but also especially in the '80s—tend to be small, diminutive, and smooth. Jackie is bulky, strong, and definitely not tiny. Lou spends much of the movie staring slack-jawed in awe of her musculature, while the one sexual encounter Jackie has with a man is transactional: it happens fully clothed, at night, in a car, and she's only participating for the change at a job offer.

One could also argue that a few days isn't enough time to really develop true feelings, but to that proposal I have two responses: West Side Story and trauma bonding. Falling in love within days is a common trope in movies (see such films as Romeo + Juliet, West Side Story, Titanic, etc.), and not only that, but when love is accompanied by traumatic events, that relationship is usually fast-tracked. There are murders, revenge, and violence aplenty in Love Lies Bleeding—enough, anyway, to sustain my suspension of disbelief. The movie ends on an unclear note, but I like to think that the two women continue running off into the sunset and staying together, going to therapy and joining the witness protection program.

Is This a Genre Film? Depends on Who's Watching

Queer cinema. The fun thing about this movie is that it can appeal to a fairly broad range of audiences. I spoke earlier about how the lesbian internet has been anticipating it for months, ever since the trailer leaked. This is because queer films, while more prevalent than ever before in the history of humanity, are still fairly rare. And to see unabashed same-sex attraction on the big screen like this still remains kind of a big deal, especially to sapphic cinephiles. Some folks will absolutely see this movie primarily for the queer relationship, at best enjoying it and at worst ignoring all the other parts.

Film noir. This film encompasses all the classic elements of film noir—it's got the new stranger in town who causes trouble, a gritty and atmospheric desert setting (everything is sand-colored or fluorescent-green-tinged), and a whole host of morally ambiguous characters. It's also got the requisite intricate plot twists and double-crosses to keep audiences guessing until the very end. Lou's—and especially Jackie's—descent into a world of crime, violence, and deception mirrors the dark and morally complex narratives typical of noir movies. There are two VERY graphic frantic blood-soaked crime-scene-cleaning scenes, and it gets really stressful as you empathize with how much hard work it takes to cover up a murder or two.

Bodybuilding and muscle hero movies. Set in 1989, Love Lies Bleeding's focus on muscles, gym culture, and steroids definitely takes some cues from early movies like Pumping Iron (you know, the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger that came out in 1977). The '80s experienced a new wave of fitness and weightlifting, and this glamorization of all things muscle definitely helped influence the brawny action movie dudes who also came to prominence in the '80s—Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme. (I recommend Susan Jeffords's Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1993) for more on this sort of thing. Jackie's bulging biceps and 'roid rage in search of vengeance take a page right of this era.

A24 arthouse horror. We see the effects of brute-force physical violence on human bodies, specifically in the form of what Lou's brother-in-law does to his wife, and then what Jackie does to him, in exquisite, disgusting, and at times revolting detail. The camera doesn't shy away from the close-ups, and it's clear that Rose Glass wanted the prosthetics teams to put in extra hours. The result is gruesome, but that's the point.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this movie, especially considering that A24 movies usually aren't my thing—but this is definitely one I plan on revisiting.

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10.

Bonuses: The late '80s soundtrack is killer; Kristen Stewart delivers a performance that even her haters can't deny is fantastic; Ed Harris's extensions are one of the movie's best jump scares

Penalties: Some folks may not dig the copious violence, or Kristen Stewart, or Kristen Stewart's copious violence, but that's on them.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.