I know I’m not the first one to say this, nor will I be the last, but we all owe Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson a debt of gratitude for spinning their post-Twilight celebrity status into star power for arthouse craziness. The occasional tentpole notwithstanding, they’ve been tremendous champions for some truly groundbreaking and bizarre pieces of work that might never have seen the light of day without them. It sucks that A-list actors have to be the advocates for small and mid-sized oddities that studios keep neglecting, but it is what it is.

So here we are with Love Lies Bleeding, the latest from star and budding queer icon Kristen Stewart. In the director’s chair is Rose Glass — late of the sacrilegious horror Saint Maud — who co-wrote the script alongside Weronika Tofilska (another artist known for dark and heady works).

And together, these three made a lesbian crime drama. Let’s fucking go!

We lay our scene in 1989, somewhere in the American Southwest. Ed Harris plays a local crime boss who also owns a number of legitimate businesses. His older daughter is Lou (Stewart), the manager of a nearby gym, though she outright loathes her father and they haven’t been on speaking terms in some time. His younger daughter is Beth (Jena Malone), who keeps herself stuck in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic asshole.

Said alcoholic asshole is J.J. (Dave Franco), who’s first introduced having sex with another woman in exchange for a job. This other woman is Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a runaway vagrant passing through town on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. In exchange for a few sexual favors, J.J. gets Jackie a job at a gun range owned by his father-in-law, who — if you’re keeping track — is the crime lord played by Ed freaking Harris.

In short order, the aspiring bodybuilder finds the nearby gym managed by Lou and the two strike up a romance. As if this whole situation wasn’t complicated enough, we’ve also got Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), the poor deluded stalker obsessively crushing over Lou to an unsettling extent.

Then we’ve got the drug angle. There’s a prominent recurring subplot about Lou struggling to quit smoking cigarettes. I’ve already mentioned J.J. and his harmful addiction to alcohol. But the big factor here is the competitive bodybuilder, which of course means steroids. Which in turn means “‘roid rage”.
I’ll admit it takes a bit of a while for things to go bad, but when things start to get bad, they get bad hard and fast.

Obviously, this is not the first film — nor will it be the last — to use drugs as a metaphor for love. We all know it can be addictive, mood-altering, sanity-depleting, and so on. Even so, it’s not very often we see a movie use steroids (as opposed to alcohol, weed, cocaine, heroin, etc.) as the central drug of the metaphor. Even better, this particular drug and the resulting muscle growth make the topic distinctly carnal in a way that amps up the sexually charged nature of the film.

Likewise, it’s nothing new for a movie to comment on the irrational and potentially violent nature of love, but it’s remarkable how far the filmmakers go with it. Case in point: Beth refuses to let go of her husband, even though his alcoholic rage turns him into a violent wife-beating shitheel. Even so, there’s a fascinating comparison to be made with Lou, who refuses to let go of Jackie even as steroids turn her into an unhinged rhinoceros. Are they really so different? Where does Lou get off, telling Beth she needs to leave her husband?

Personally, I’d argue that Lou has the upper hand because Jackie without steroids is lucid and lovely while J.J. without alcohol is still a sleazy piece of shit. But maybe that’s just me.

From start to finish, the movie works because the filmmakers show uncanny judgment in knowing when to go full-tilt and when to go for nuance. The violence, sex scenes, and drug trips, for example, are all aggressively over-the-top in a way that makes for compelling cinema. But then we have Ed Harris’ character and his relationship with Lou, which is genuinely tense because Lou keeps looking for reasons to hate her dad while her dad keeps trying (in his own demented way) as best he can to love her. Likewise, because the film finds sympathy for the poor brainwashed woman who can never leave the husband who keeps putting her in the hospital, it adds layers to the central romance.

And then we get the “suspense” scenes, in which we watch the unfolding mystery of Lou’s childhood and how much she really knows about her father’s crimes. Here, again, the filmmakers show expert skill in pulling back just enough, drawing out the tension as we wait to see how the pieces fit together and who will do what next.

The film never goes completely into over-the-top madness until the climax, which is exactly the time for it. That’s the one moment when the film comes dangerously close to flying off the rails, without much clarity as to how much we should be taking literally. Even so, it’s memorable. It’s exciting. It’s done in a way that feeds into the themes of the movie. It works.

Love Lies Bleeding is a provocative movie above all else. It’s the kind of movie that goes so hard into the sex and violence that audiences will either love it or run from the theater sick to their stomachs. Either way, I expect this will be an immediate cult favorite, especially among the LGBTQ+ crowd. And seeing as we’re still in the early-year post-strike doldrums, you could do a hell of a lot worse than checking this one out.

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