‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Review: Pure Pulp Packed With Gory, Sexy Fun

A24's new queer thriller is a pulse-pounding success, with electric performances from Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian.

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart star in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy of A24

Love Lies Bleeding is an exhilarating ride from beginning to end. Whether that’s because of its status as a tense crime thriller, its brutal violence, its sultry central romance or a combination of all three, the pulpy, pulsing power of this movie cannot be denied.

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LOVE LIES BLEEDING ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Rose Glass
Written by: Rose Glass and Weronika Tofilska
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Katy O'Brian, Jena Malone, Dave Franco, Ed Harris
Running time: 104 mins.

In a sweaty, grimy gym in the American southwest of the ‘80s, we meet Lou (Kristen Stewart). She runs the place, from cleaning the toilets to handing off steroids to a handful of muscle men patrons, but she’s hardly successful or fulfilled. No, she’s really just lingering in her hometown, desperate to get out from under the thumb of her criminal father (Ed Harris) but still stuck in his orbit. Lou’s social life is all but empty, save for the doting, draining Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) and occasional visits to her sister Beth (Jena Malone) and her scummy husband JJ (Dave Franco). So when a striking new woman strolls into town and waltzes into the gym, Lou can’t help but stare.

That woman is Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a drifter with dreams of winning a major bodybuilding contest in Las Vegas and getting her life on some sort of track. She and Lou have an instant spark and they seem to be a match made in heaven. It doesn’t matter that Lou convinces her to take some steroids to bulk up ahead of the contest, or that Jackie takes a job at the shooting range that Lou’s father and JJ run—they just fit. That bond only gets deeper as the two become implicated in the darker parts of Lou’s family business, where they must rely on each other for not just support but survival.

Director Rose Glass creates a world built with a corrupt house of cards that’s destined to topple over, and that anxiety sweats through the screen. As Lou, Stewart is almost always on a knife’s edge, her nerves palpable. The sound design is purposefully punishing, from the clanging metal at Lou’s gym to the gunshots at her father’s shooting range to Jackie’s grunts as she begins to push herself too far. They’re all in a small southwestern town, horizon stretching as far as the eye can see, but the effect is more isolating than liberating. The who, what, why, and how of it all is a bit thinly drawn, but the effect that Glass creates more than makes up for it.

That effect is gloriously amplified by the movie’s affinity for good, old-fashioned gore. There is some truly gnarly prosthetic work on display in Love Lies Bleeding, and Glass does a marvelous job of teasing the horrors before actually putting them front and center. In this movie, it’s inevitable that bodies begin to pile up, but the first corpse’s reveal is a thing of disgusting beauty (though the more easily nauseated may not agree).

On top of that, the violence at hand feels exceptionally real. O’Brian does much of the heavy lifting there (literally), with the actress’ actual bodybuilding past serving the role superbly. When she decks a guy who won’t give Lou space or goes after a fellow bodybuilder making fun of her, the aggression and power behind each punch is a shock. You can feel the crunching impact of each blow. The fully realized physicality she brings to Jackie is great, especially as she enters a dangerous stage of roid rage.

O’Brian brings more to the screen than just her impressive physique, though. Jackie is a surprisingly optimistic lost soul, ostracized by her family and kicked out of her home for her sexuality and her physical presentation. When she meets Lou, her world turns upside down, but it takes quite a while for it to register how messed up her situation is. The way that the realization plays on her face over time keeps things grounded, even as the film leans into pulpier moments. It’s painful to feel Jackie’s anger, fear and regret with her.

Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy of A24

On the steamier side, O’Brian and Stewart have real chemistry in a film that takes care in how it shows two women in love (and lust). The intimacy on display feels special and real, something that both the director and stars are proud of. Between this, Drive-Away Dolls and Bottoms, there has been quite the treasure trove of queer women on screen recently.

Of course, one can’t talk about how successfully gay this movie is without highlighting one of Hollywood’s pre-eminent queer stars, Kristen Stewart. The actress continues to make bold, interesting choices, and as Lou, she gets to be wounded, sexy, uncertain, and bad-ass all at the same time. She’s reeling from parts of her past and lying to herself about why she’s never just packed up and left, and though these points are left purposefully (if a bit questionably) vague, Stewart’s performance tells you all you need to know about this woman and more.

Love Lies Bleeding is truly a breath of fresh, bracing air. It’s just short of perfect, with a story that only scratches the surface with some plot points, but it takes you on a ride you won’t forget anytime soon. O’Brian is a revelation, Stewart remains a fascinating screen presence and Glass shows that she has a cinematic vision like no other—there’s not much else you could ask for.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Review: Pure Pulp Packed With Gory, Sexy Fun