An early draft of this review was originally published on March 21, 2024,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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In my classes on writing poetry and fiction, we focus intently on suspending our readers’ disbelief with the power of startling specificity. Are your readers looking at a page and seeing vivid imagery in the world you create? Hearing specific voices within your distinctive world of sound? Or — here’s the toughest one — breathing the particular air of your environments? (Olfactory capacities are the most difficult to awaken with writing.) In short: Do your readers believe? Regardless of whether your premise is plausible, does it feel true enough to readers that they don’t feel the pages turning?

The premise for Love Lies Bleeding, the new film from director Rose Glass, is highly implausible — even more unlikely than the narrative of her first feature, the riveting religious horror film Saint Maud. But while it’s as nuts as a pitch for “The Incredible Hulk meets Thelma and Louise meets Mandy,” its world is so immersive, so particular, I had no trouble suspending disbelief. It made me laugh in the midst of severe scenarios. It made me care about crazy characters. And in spite of its bleak and violent vision — I find myself eager to see it again.

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart are Jackie and Lou, lovers whose story of desperate measures is bound for cult-classic status. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Try this on: Lou (Kristen Stewart) spends long miserable days working at a gym in small-town New Mexico, doing everything from managing memberships to cleaning toilets. She has good reason to hate life; Lou’s the resentful daughter of a rural crime lord named Lou (yes, you read that right). He’s violent enough that she’s too scared to turn him in, even though F.B.I. agents are showing up at her workplace with questions.

One day, Lou’s luck changes: A female bodybuilder named Jackie (Katy O’Brian) shows up in town and takes a job at Lou Sr.’s gun club — which is called “Louville” (yes, you read that right). When Jackie walks into Lou Jr.’s gym, the two start sharing steroids… and more.

But this isn’t the kind of town where love, dreams, or conscience stand a chance. When Lou’s abusive brother-in-law (James Franco) takes one swing too many at Lou’s sister (Jena Malone, who, let’s face it, should always play Kristen Stewart’s sister), well… Lou thinks she might have found an advantage: a girlfriend who can punish any abuser in town. Pretty soon, the movie’s title makes too much sense. And Jackie’s steroid problem becomes a problem for everyone — especially her new enemies.

Jackie shows off in a Vegas competition. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

If that sounds crazy, well, trust me — it’s gets crazier.

And yet, I believed. In a season when theaters are saturated with formulaic media, it’s a rare thing to have an experience where you believe in something this bonkers, where you care about characters caught in such preposterous circumstances, and where you’re leaning forward moment to moment with no idea what will happen next.

Just as I quickly fell under Saint Maud’s spell, I was happy to be trapped in this movie’s ridiculous New Mexico twilight zone. I felt dust stinging my eyes when the wind blew. I could smell the sweat in Lou Jr.’s gym. And I believed the movie’s wild rides into magical realism — because Lou and Jackie believed them (and Stewart and O’Brian give convincing performances in surreal situations). It’s almost as if the intermingling of their steroid-saturated bodily fluids has given them a shared alternate reality, and we’re not sure whether we’re watching a monster movie or madness.

I’m more surprised than any of you that I came out of the theater a fan of Love Lies Bleeding. I’d walked in with some trepidation.

Lou is smitten with a woman who just might have what it takes to help her escape her father’s criminal underworld. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

And I had three good reasons for that:

  1. Movies full of gunshots usually make me wish I’d spent the time doing something more worthwhile, and there are a lot of gunshots in this movie. In the real world, gun violence is a curse. In the movies, it’s so ubiquitous that it’s a bore.
  2. Movies that linger on lesbians in love often aggravate me because so many are off-puttingly lurid and so obviously designed to delight adolescent male moviegoers. And much of the film’s big buzz has come from the promise of seeing superstar Kristen Stewart in explicit girl-on-girl action. My LGBTQ sisters deserve respect, not exploitation. So, I was inclined to give this movie a pass (until word of mouth from reliable critics convinced me to give it a chance).
  3. I can’t quickly recall any films focused on bodybuilders or boxers or wrestlers that has made me admire or care about all of that obsession with muscle.

But now that I’ve seen Love Lies Bleeding, I can address each of these issues.

First, the gun violence. Most of the action in Love Lies Bleeding transpires at or around a gun club called Louville, run by — who else? — Lou (Ed Harris). Lou also happens to be a criminal kingpin who knows where a lot of bodies are buried because, well, he buried them… after he perforated them with is pistol. But the gunfire here is mostly background noise meant to keep us on edge. And Ed Harris, savoring a chance to play a devil, is scary and hilarious. He’s scare-larious!

Lou Sr. (Ed Harris) as seen through rose-colored lenses — Rose Glass, that is. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Second — what about those much-hyped, hot-and-heavy sex scenes? Frankly, they’re fleeting and they’re filmed without gratuitous nudity. (This film might rate a “4” or a “5” on the Explicit and Unnecessary Sex Scene chart, where the Oscar-winning Poor Things, by contrast, would break the chart at “11.”) Their intensity has more to do with just how desperately these needy lovers reach for one another in a world that has taught them to distrust, fear, and even revile most men.

And what about the bodybuilding? Don’t worry. This isn’t Pumping Iron or The Wrestler. Close-ups on bulging biceps play more as premonition; they represent the pressure building up that will eventually blow open Lou Sr.’s hermetically sealed crime world. I anticipated that the climactic violence would take place in Las Vegas at the competition that Jackie’s been training for, but that doesn’t happen. The movie is much more interested in unleashing Lou’s musclebound dreamgirl in Lou Sr.’s misogynistic hellscape.

I admire how director Rose Glass made me believe in the two women at the center of her first surrealistic horror film. Saint Maud is about a lonely, isolated, wounded young nurse (Morfydd Clark) who, as a result of past trauma, is prone to believing in her own personal fantasyland, one influenced by a perversion of Catholic piety. She believes she’s on a supernatural mission to save the soul of an ailing dancer (the great Jennifer Ehle), when, in fact, she’s actually manufacturing a sense of purpose and looking for excuses to lash out at anyone who might interrupt her intimacy with her patient. And so, Maud becomes dangerously possessive and deluded about the truth of her situation. Glass, like a writer committed to an intense limited-third-person point of view, directs the film in a way that traps us within Maud’s altered state. We have to ask if what we’re seeing is a manifestation of Maud’s madness, or if she might in fact be making her own fantastical visions come true.

A female bodybuilder walks into a gym full of danger. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Love Lies Bleeding is an altogether different film in style and substance. And yet, we can see that Glass is revealing what I hope will become the central thematic thread of a long and fascinating filmography. Lou, like Maud, is lonely, isolated, wounded, and — likely as a response to trauma — quick to give in to delusions if they will lead her to love (or something like it). And so, once again, moviegoers spill out into the lobby immediately questioning whether or not they should take the film’s climactic violence literally. This story slowly metamorphizes from a homoerotic thriller to something more like a monster movie. Glass ever so gradually steers us off of the freeway of familiar stories about women who join forces and try to beat their oppressive system, and then she drives us into a darker world of magical realism.

A lot of critics are comparing this movie to the Wachowskis’ erotic noir Bound — for obvious reasons. But the movies that I ended up thinking about most, quite unexpectedly, were Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In.

Lovers in a dangerous time. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Green’s movie is about two young women who seek adventure in a hot, dusty, isolated environment where the resident men circle them like predators and the resident women laugh as if this is just the way of the world. It’s sensual, it’s fierce, and it’s a pressure cooker of righteous anger that leads almost inevitably to climactic violence. I was disappointed by its abrupt, unimaginative conclusion. By contrast, Love Lies Bleeding is much more interesting. Instead of making it easy to pick sides in an us-versus-them fight, it asks us to question whether or not we think these two rebels with good causes are making wise choices.

Alfredson’s moody vampire movie introduces us to a vulnerable and traumatized young boy who, having no one else to help him in a world designed to ruin him, so easily accepts the offer of a vampire’s love in order to gain an advantage — even though that would mean killing for the sake of survival. Its conclusion is truly horrifying. We have to ask ourselves, “What are we endorsing as our tortured young protagonist makes his escape?” Let the Right One In is a tragedy. And while Love Lies Bleeding is primarily a pitch-black comedy, I’d argue that its closing notes suggest something similarly tragic. Glass makes us squirm in the movie’s final moments, making it impossible to ignore the body count that these lovers are adding up. They may think they’re headed off into a “happily ever after,” and we might think so too. But note where Glass chooses to close to the story. Is it meant to be a joke? Or a reality check regarding the kind of person Lou Jr. is becoming?

Driven to the edge: Lou and Jackie discover just how far they’ll go for love. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

So no — Love Lies Bleeding is not a movie I’m going to champion for its moral vision. This is genuine film noir — a genre about worlds that are corrupt beyond saving, and about antiheroes who can’t succeed without compromising their integrity. In this world of two Lous, misogynistic violence is so prevalent and brutal that we can empathize with these disintegrating women who cannot escape without doing deadly damage themselves. They turn to violence in desperation, as it’s the only path they can find that offers them a measure of tenderness. They sink into delusion as reality proves too cruel to bear.

But the bigger question is this: Who can blame them? Who can deny that their circumstances are tragic? Their choices are destructive, but their options are awful. They’ve never known love to be something generous, patient, gentle, or forgiving. They live in a world of snarling beasts, and while they may not find their way to true freedom, at least they’re finding a fundamental love language. They’re lurching in the right direction — through a world both absurdly fantastical and frightfully, believably like our own.