Filmmaker Rose Glass has an audacious way of exploring obsession, pushing it to extremes in beguiling, genre-defying ways. Her feature debut, Saint Maud, centered on a nurse who took her religious fanaticism to extremes, compounded by an obsession with her latest patient. Glass’s sophomore effort, Love Lies Bleeding, wields obsession as a destructive coping mechanism for the pain that love can inflict. With a visionary at the helm and an impressive cast willing to follow along with every wild turn thrown at them, Love Lies Bleeding makes for a captivating ‘80s set crime thriller unafraid to get deeply weird and ultra-violent.
Love Lies Bleeding introduces Lou (Kristen Stewart) as she’s elbow-deep cleaning out a clogged toilet at the gym where she works in her dusty Nevada town. Lou seems aloof and disinterested in everything, even the strong, unwanted advances by Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). Lou would love to leave town and never look back but feels obligated to look after her sister Beth (Jena Malone), considering Beth’s husband JJ (Dave Franco) is prone to cruel violence. That all changes the moment Lou lays eyes on bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a drifter making their way to Vegas with dreams of championship on her mind. The sparks between Lou and Jackie are electric, but the road to freedom will come paved with violence and pain thanks to Lou’s entanglement with her crime lord father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris).
There’s a simplicity to Glass’s latest, co-written with Weronika Tofilska, in characterization and setting. There’s no pretense to any of the characters; they wear or state their wants and desires plain as day. Glass begins her delirious neo-noir with a straightforward leanness that eases you into a weird pocket of Americana where most of the town residents are sporting mullets, even Lou Sr. The characters are almost too simple, often leaving them in a state of confusion when things derail. And oh boy, do they derail. Don’t look for rationality in this town; you won’t find it.
Glass brings the town and its denizens to life through sheer style- Lou’s flashbacks to painful familial memories are saturated with vibrant, violent red- and profound character quirks. Lou, for example, wants to impress Jackie, so she brings out a case of illegal performance-enhancing drugs meant to help bulk her up ahead of the bodybuilding competition in Vegas. This subtle, peculiar moment will irrevocably alter the couple’s course toward the insane. There’s also a surprising sense of humor; Glass and the cast know how absurd this setup can be and lean into it often.
The tipping point ushers in shocking violence that splatters blood and tissue everywhere, and it’s here where Glass takes the training wheels off. The further Lou and Jackie spiral out of control, the more Glass begins to play with genres, form, and surrealism. What begins as a neo-noir built upon the classic compulsive romance soon unravels into a skillful patchwork of genres, from body horror hallucinations to western-style gunfights, albeit with Glass’s particular offbeat touch. Most impressive is how Glass streamlines all of the competing genres and tones into one cohesive, singular vision.
For all the wild turns and gruesome bursts of violence and dead bodies, it’s the cast that shines brightest. Harris’ cool crime boss earns admiration despite knowing what he’s capable of. Baryshnikov’s Daisy is a scene stealer for her utter weirdness, and Malone is well cast as Lou’s oddball sister. But the movie belongs to Stewart, who uplifts every scene partner, and O’Brian, who grows more assured and confident in her role as the events progress into complete madness.
That it devolves into madness, complete with humor and surreal imagery, means that it’s the precise type of gonzo cinema that’ll likely prove divisive. But Glass makes it so easy to fall on this movie’s wavelength, and the unpredictability of it keeps you deeply invested and often breathless from the suspense. Obsession transforms Lou and Jackie’s love into a toxic, destructive force that’s electrifying, even if a bit simple. It makes for an exhilarating sophomore effort from a visionary.
Love Lies Bleeding made its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in limited theaters on March 8, 2024.