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Breaking Glass: ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ shows big promise

Cinema | April 3rd, 2024

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

In Sundance standout “Love Lies Bleeding,” filmmaker Rose Glass improves on all the promises announced in her 2021 debut “Saint Maud.” While “Maud” explored the familiar territory of the psychological horror thriller, “Love Lies Bleeding” mines the fertile grit of the neo-noir. Working with a cast of well-known performers, Glass fashions the story of a menacing criminal’s daughter and her desperate romance with a musclebound bodybuilder into a twisted and captivating diagram of malefaction and malfeasance. By the time the clock runs out, genre fans will be itching to revisit “Bound,” “The Hot Spot,” “Blood Simple,” “Blue Velvet” and other like-minded midnight misdeeds.

Had the screenplay, which Glass co-wrote with Weronika Tofilska, been originally conceived as a novel, one could easily imagine it being published by Donald Ellis and Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard imprint alongside classics by Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Charles Williams during the late 1980s series heyday. Perhaps the film’s 1989 setting is no coincidence. Willy Vlautin’s comment that the Black Lizard books “were about psychologically damaged people trying to navigate a cruel, cutthroat world that didn't want them in the first place” perfectly fits Kristen Stewart’s frustrated gym manager Lou and the other characters in her increasingly unbalanced orbit.

Once Lou catches a glimpse of Jackie’s (Katy O’Brian) ripped physique, the humiliation of unclogging toilets gives way to something a little closer to hope — or at least lust. Noir is built on the crescendo of really bad choices, and Lou’s suggestion that Jackie inject performance-enhancing steroids to give her an edge in an upcoming Las Vegas competition is just the first taste of questionable decision-making that will spiral out of control. One of the movie’s sublime pleasures is watching Jackie “Hulk out,” veins popping and biceps glistening, en route to doing things that can’t be undone. Together, Stewart and O’Brian sweat out a pulse-quickening escalation of codependency.

In many a terrific noir, it’s a family affair that forecasts the giant screw-up leading to a bloody, extended showdown. Turns out, Lou is no stranger to body disposal, even if she’s worked hard to wriggle out from under the terrifying shadow cast by her pop Lou Sr. (Ed Harris, relishing the steely hair extensions that frame the deep lines of a gaunt, corpse-like visage). Sister Beth (Jena Malone), whose marriage to the abusive J.J. requires extra-strength pain relief, further confuses Lou’s nuclear — in more than one sense of the word — relationships.

Glass fully understands the intimate links between sex and violence. “Love Lies Bleeding” skimps on neither. Depending on your proclivities, you might long for a little more of each, although it is tough to imagine going any harder than the blunt force trauma that serves as the movie’s big turning point. Glass is at her best when at her weirdest. The incorporation of a macrophilia fantasy (which, for Richard Brody, called to mind the “primordial ‘roid-rage” of James Mason’s Ed Avery in Nicholas Ray’s brilliant “Bigger Than Life”) demonstrates that Glass could be well on her way to something special.

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