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A Winning Romance Between Juiced-Up Bodybuilders

A Winning Romance Between Juiced-Up Bodybuilders
A Winning Romance Between Juiced-Up Bodybuilders

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The meet-cute at the beginning of Love Lies Bleeding, a new thriller directed by Rose Glass, is sweet and refreshingly untraditional. Girl meets girl (at a bodybuilding gym); they strike up a conversation (and start giving each other steroid injections); they amble out together hand in hand (where they immediately flatten a couple of bros who aggressively hit on them). The girls are Lou (played by Kristen Stewart), the gym’s taciturn manager, whose nonchalance belies a dark, crime-ridden history, and Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a muscular workout bud who dreams of competitive weight lifting. Their romance is genuinely winning—crucial, given that Love Lies Bleeding subjects them to criminality, violence, and even a dash of paranormal body horror.

That last aspect shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw Glass’s debut feature film, Saint Maud, which plunged the viewer into the mind of a home nurse plagued by biblical visions of angels and demons. Saint Maud’s protagonist was a spindly, religious health aide who imagined her body elongating and stretching in gory, supernatural ways. In Love Lies Bleeding, which is largely fun but also relentlessly intense, Glass shifts her gaze to a small, dusty town in 1980s New Mexico, where everyone sports either a mullet, a handgun, or both. Her camera takes in Lou’s and Jackie’s muscle-bound bodies with delight but then occasionally imagines them swelling to Incredible Hulk proportions, pushing from the aspirational to the nightmarish.

Two films in, it seems that’s where Glass likes to keep her narratives: right on the knife-edge between fantasy and reality, constantly keeping the audience guessing over what’s in her characters’ heads and what’s actually happening. But where Saint Maud applied that methodology to a work of straightforward horror, Love Lies Bleeding lays it over a hard-boiled crime thriller—a Coen brothers movie without the jokes. The juxtaposition isn’t as clean, but still, there’s enough boldness to carry it off.

Jackie and Lou’s bond is well-earned because the two leads are so capable. Stewart, one of the reigning queens of the art-house American indie, is in her element as a shifty-eyed and awkward tough gal with a heart of gold, yet another entry in her expanding canon of flinty, complicated lead characters. O’Brian, perhaps best known for supporting roles in genre projects such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, is a revelation here, matching her imposing figure with bright, straight-ahead charm. Jackie is at the gym to prepare for a bodybuilding competition, but she’s drawn into a sordid plot involving Lou’s estranged family, a web of ghastly and sometimes homicidal misfits.

The family’s central figure is Lou’s dad, aptly named Lou Sr. (Ed Harris)—a stringy-haired gangster who owns Lou’s gym and a nearby gun range, and is involved in plenty of extralegal business. Harris, who is all growls and withering stares, has been called on to lend his grizzled menace to many a thriller, but he makes a wonderful meal of this role. Just what kind of bad behavior Lou Sr. is up to is never clear—Glass is more interested in Lou’s general desire to escape him, to turn her own body into a weapon as a way of distinguishing herself from her gun-toting dad. Also mixed up in Lou Sr.’s business is his other daughter, Beth (Jena Malone), a woman trapped in an abusive marriage to JJ (Dave Franco), whose miserable mistreatment of his wife eventually provokes Jackie and Lou into vengeful intervention.

That sets all kinds of dunderheaded schemes into motion, some of them righteous, some not so much, but all of them severely bloody and garish. Glass is not afraid of lingering on an open wound or dragging out hand-to-hand combat to the most gruesome conclusions. That willingness to shock sets Love Lies Bleeding apart from a lot of other neo-noirs, where cool, smoky restraint is the norm. The final act takes things into the realm of purer fantasy, a twist that may distress some viewers but that has been seeded in the movie from minute one. Jackie and Lou’s partnership is so vigorous, it’s not a surprise when it literally starts breaking the rules of reality.

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