Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian star in an ‘escalating tangle of betrayal and murder’ in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy photo.

Bodies at Risk

All hell breaks loose in ‘Love Lies Bleeding’

The closing scene of Saint Maud, the 2019 feature-length debut by British writer/director Rose Glass, was so jarring and disturbing that I’m convinced it imprinted itself permanently on the DNA of my nightmares.

A brooding psychological horror film about a nurse whose Catholicism degenerates into madness and martyrdom, the movie’s final image exterminates all preceding illusions so completely that only the void is left. It was a bold, shattering moment of filmmaking, announcing the arrival of a talent worth watching — granting, of course, that you like your art profoundly unsettling.

Glass’ newest, Love Lies Bleeding, is a lot more playful than Saint Maud, though playful here is a very relative term. The movie has all the outward trappings of a crime thriller: grit, darkness, sex and violence. In style and substance both, it immediately recalls the early work of the Coen brothers, as well as such ’90s neo-noir gems as John Dahl’s The Last Seduction, and especially the Wachowski brothers’ excellent Bound.

Set in the garish and mulleted New Mexico of the 1980s, the movie centers on Lou (Kristin Stewart), the disaffected daughter of a local crime lord, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), whose shooting range is a cover for his Mexican gun-running operation. One day Jackie (Katy O’Brian), an itinerant body-builder making her way to a competition in Las Vegas, walks into the gym where Lou works, and the sparks immediately fly. They hook up, and Lou hooks Jackie up with steroids. What could go wrong?

Well, this being a neo-noir, a lot goes wrong, and then even more wrong. Jackie, jacked on roids, commits an act of brutal vengeance against Lou’s brother-in-law J.J. (Dave Franco) for abusing his wife, Lou’s sister Beth (Jenna Malone). This act of righteous loyalty plunges the lovers into an escalating tangle of betrayal and murder, ending with a scene that absolutely has to be seen to be believed.

The first half of the movie, while thoroughly entertaining, edgy and funny, was so by the numbers that I began to wonder whether it wasn’t simply a very adept and stylish homage to the thrillers previously mentioned — both of which also bucked the masculine noir trend by placing women in the lead role.

And then, about halfway through, there came a scene that recalled the spontaneous gut-shot of Saint Maud, and then another, and then another, and then shit got really weird. Glass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Weronika Tofilska, has a great eye for character and detail — witness the macho douche J.J. fumbling with his chopsticks at lunch, or the Hulk-like crackling of pumped muscles — but her greatest talent lies in a kind of cinematic brutality: you are going along, seduced into a particular vision of reality, only to have the carpet yanked from beneath your feet.

What’s revealed in these moments is a deeper kind of truth — something sad, or tragic, or just plain real, like the dark circles under Stewart’s eyes or a pile of vomit on an empty stage. The effect here is destabilization through shock, and it’s thrilling. In Love Lies Sleeping, Glass employs this technique to peel away narrative layers only to add other layers, themselves later to be peeled away (or maybe not). What results is a very peculiar form of magical realism, where it is not reality itself but only its perception that is being interrogated.

It’s all great fun — dark and nasty, but fun — and the second half of the film moves with such breakneck speed that it becomes difficult to distinguish between a laugh and a gasp. Bodies pile up, double-crosses abound, good people do bad, bad things. I can’t imagine any moviegoers who require that their morality be sliced cleanly between good and evil will find much to like here. 

Too bad. This movie doesn’t only thumb its nose at conventional morality; it rejoices in blowing it to smithereens. The joy to be had resides in the absurdity of it all, the sheer subversive energy, the controlled chaos of Glass’s directorial hand.

Elevating it all is the cast. Stewart, who has become a master at conveying a taciturn, millennial misanthropy that barely covers a scorched romanticism, has never been better, and she is well matched by O’Brian as an addled dreamer who walks a fine line between infectious naif and scary psycho. Their on-screen attraction is palpable — femme fatale meets femme fatale — and sexy as hell. Especially good is Anna Baryshnikov as Daisy, a strung-out party girl whose crush on Lou borders on obsession. She is the movie’s secret weapon, an accelerant awaiting a spark — this bumbling dunderhead who is way more dangerous than she at first seems.

Love Lies Bleeding plays at Metro Cinemas, 888 Willamette Street, and Regal Valley River Center, 500 Valley River Center.

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