Near the end of Love Lies Bleeding, someone eats a large black beetle. It happens in a moment of abrupt anger, and it’s bitten into so forcefully that it’s as if they’d done this before––either relieving a shard of stress or intimidating someone. The movie wouldn’t suffer without it, but its inclusion, even for just a few seconds, is one of those added details that locks in everything you’ve seen and understood: the cruel violence, the surrealist transformations, the rage that infects people with the desire to destroy other living things. 

This is a Rose Glass movie, which means it packs a killer, multi-faceted punch and resists easy classification. Her second feature after St. Maud is a stylized neo-noir love story, a drama about addiction, an athletic underdog tale, and a bloody thriller compounding genres and narratives that overlap and blend into each other without any wrinkles. It takes place in rural New Mexico circa 1989, where Lou (Kristen Stewart) helps manage a warehouse gym, plunging toilets and defending the advances of a co-worker named Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). Lou has a bad smoking habit, a chopped-up mullet, and some dark secrets from her past. But her life changes when Jackie (Katy O’Brian) rolls into town from Oklahoma and starts maxing-out on weights. She’s looking to get to Las Vegas to compete in a bodybuilding competition and needs some money and a place to bulk before the big day. Jackie has a certain look and quiet demeanor that attracts Lou, who quickly gifts her new friend a bottle of steroids to gain a little edge. It’s not long before the pair start up a feverish romance that Glass portrays sensitively and seductively, then ferociously. 

Things escalate when Lou discovers Jackie has taken a job at her estranged father Lou Sr.’s (Ed Harris) gun range thanks to a connection from a rat-tailed scumbag employee named JJ (Dave Franco). He and Lou have a bad history, mostly because he consistently abuses Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone). One night he goes too far, landing Beth in the hospital, which prompts a defensive Jackie––already roid-raging and growing more physically and emotionally charged––to take things into her own hulking hands. In what produced multiple gasps and might be the lingering image of this festival, she sneaks into his home and smashes his jaw into multiple dangling pieces. The splattering and crunching––along with Jackie’s physical transformation accented by sound designer Paul Davies with crisp, unnerving textures––is enough for her to race out of town, leaving Lou to clean up a mess (dumping him into a large crevasse filled with traumatic secrets from her past) that she doesn’t want her father handling.

Glass handles the whiplash of romance to murder with a deft touch, riding the highs of a haunting synth score and two performances that work in-tandem. Stewart, who has become the Sundance queen with her other starring role in Love Me, sinks into her signature chain-smoking agitated state but adds another anxious level while Jackie takes the reins of this movie, easing its veers into the uncanny and grotesque with her determined eyes and imposing stature. You can’t help but get lost in her spiraling, mostly because the movie starts spiraling with her. The adrenaline ride is fueled by misunderstandings, secrets and, yes, lies, but Glass never loses the thread––or the pulsating feeling––of everyone’s manic reactions. 

It’s fair to say there’s too much going on at once. The movie can feel like it’s a bit on steroids, too. But it’s so self-assured, so confident with the characters it’s tethered to, the genre lines it blurs, and the love story that waffles with each dead body rolled up into a carpet or dragged down a stairwell. There’s a supernatural quality that grows the further the movie progresses, and though it’s meant to have a metaphorical tilt, I kept hoping it would exist more in the plane of reality. Which is to say I wanted more of O’Brian––she’s got the makings of real stardom, and Glass knows it in the way she frames her, lights her, and turns her into something gigantic. It’s a breakout performance, one that transcends all of the pulpy chaos that Glass has so carefully and vibrantly constructed. 

Love Lies Bleeding premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and opens March 8 from A24.

Grade: B+

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