Kristen Stewart has displayed both boldness and excellence in the lesbian horror film Love Lies Bleeding, where fiery blood never ceases.

Stewart lights up Rose Glass’ gnarly noir story, about a lonely gym manager who falls hard for Katy O’Brian’s buff bodybuilder.

Rose Glass launched her career with the harrowing British horror film Saint Maud, but for her follow-up, she wove a tale of violence and obsession uniquely American. Love Lies Bleeding — greeted with late-night cheers at the Sundance Film Festival 2024 — is part darkness, part twisted romance, chronicling the tumultuous love affair between gym manager Lou (an extraordinary Kristen Stewart) and ambitious bodybuilder Jackie (Mandalorian actress Katy O’Brian).

Glass introduces Stewart’s solitary Lou with her hand plunged into a literal clogged toilet, a decidedly unglamorous introduction to an existence that’s anything but glamorous. With disheveled, unkempt hair and a stained tank top, she doesn’t float through life so much as she’s mired in it, even as around her are motivational gym posters screaming, “Chase Your Dreams” or “When Going Gets Tough, Tough Gets Going.” She harbors no love for her dull hometown of New Mexico, merely coexisting out of loyalty to her sister Beth (Jena Malone), who’s married to an abusive man named JJ (the intriguingly offbeat Dave Franco, raising the world’s most resilient goldfish). She’s also estranged from her father, Lou Sr. (portrayed by the menacingly gravel-voiced Ed Harris sporting Argus Filch’s toupee), who owns a local gun range and may or may not have ties to shady dealings in the underworld.

 

So, when newcomer Jackie rolls into town, headed west to compete in a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas, it’s like a lightning bolt striking Lou’s gym. Lou spends much of the film trying to quit smoking, but around Jackie, she finds herself unable to resist, and together, they quickly and tumultuously spiral downward. For perhaps the first time ever, Lou finds a bit of color in her drab, monotonous life, and Jackie finally finds someone who encourages her to pursue her bodybuilding dreams. But their fleeting happiness is interrupted when they find themselves sucked into Lou Sr.’s criminal empire, embarking on a blood-soaked adventure of sex, extortion, and murder.

Love Lies Bleeding is set in the 1980s, and Glass envelops all the hedonism of the era with neon lights and the excesses of the decade. Muscles are bigger, hair is bigger, and the story twists and turns with thrilling plot developments, especially as the bodies begin to pile up. Life in Lou and Jackie’s New Mexico may be bleak and brutal, but Glass sprinkles in surreal elements throughout, giving the entire film a dreamlike quality, akin to a fairy tale. Every nighttime sky scene sparkles with stars, making even the most mundane locations — like the gym parking lot where Lou and Jackie first share a cigarette — feel magical. Glass also encompasses the horror of the body inherent in Jackie’s quest for a massive physique, and as Jackie trains for the competition and injects more and more steroids, her skin stretches and veins bulge under close scrutiny. At certain moments, you can almost hear O’Brian’s muscles swelling and pulsating, as if she’s turning into a Hulk without the green tint.

All the gore, excess, and twisted turns threaten to push Love Lies Bleeding over the edge — and that’s even before the film delves into full-blown sci-fi/fantasy territory in its blood-soaked final act. (I mean, this is a movie where Harris literally chomps into a wriggling stag beetle.) However, it’s Stewart and O’Brian who ground the film, anchoring Lou and Jackie’s love story with the exhilarating obsession of two individuals who believe they’ve finally found their soulmate. Stewart serves as the film’s emotional core, expertly shedding Lou’s cool exterior as she and Jackie plunge deeper into turmoil. Yet, O’Brian shines as Jackie too, portraying her with a focused, starry-eyed determination, whether it’s in pursuit of a bodybuilding title or Lou’s affection. It’s a savage, visceral, and dizzying journey, but goodness, is it exhilarating.

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