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'Love Lies Bleeding' Review

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March 13, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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From its neon-drenched cinematography, pulpy story, casting of Jena Malone, and Clint Mansell’s electronic score, one could be fooled into thinking that Love Lies Bleeding is the cinematic return of Danish bad-boy filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Blood red tinges over the studio logos, and the opening shot traverses up an abyss so deep that it would make James Cameron blush. The camera keeps moving into a gym at the center of a podunk desert town. Sweat is dripping off every face, muscles are firm and perpetually flexed, the cardio machines are always whirring, and the clanging of weights punctuates each roid rage-induced grunt. Writer/director Sean Durkin showed the peak of the male physique with The Iron Claw, and now it’s time for Rose Glass to do the same for the ladies in her sophomore feature.

At the helm of the gym is Lou (Kristen Stewart), a lonesome and frantic person who’s never had a life outside the ten square miles that surround her. Her job is demeaning, dealing with alpha bros “getting their gains” and cleaning toilets by hand. All that changes when Jackie (Katy O’Brian) blows in with the tumbleweeds. Lou has never met anyone like Jackie, which is unsurprising since no one in the world is like Jackie. She’s an aspiring bodybuilder on her to the national championships in Las Vegas, this town being just another stop on her solo journey. Also in the mix is Lou’s father (Ed Harris), the proprietor of a gun range that’s riding high off the gun fetishization in Die Hard. But that’s just a front for all the criminal activities that go in behind the backdoor, with Lou’s POS brother-in-law (Dave Franco) also participating.

Glass does show many similarities to Refn in her direction. Improving on what she displayed with her 2019 debut Saint Maud, Glass wrings tension out of each and every scene. The sound effects are ratcheted up to eleven, with pumping of blood through veins and flexing of muscles being treated with both reverence and horror. Every character is ready to pop at any moment, each outburst promising gory results that beg you to look away.

As a corkscrew rollercoaster, it makes sense that Love Lies Bleeding also packs a steamy love story between Lou and Jackie. Their power dynamics may be obvious physically, but there’s never a moment where either is fixed in their position. Stewart and O’Brian have excellent chemistry together, both emboldened by Glass to crank up the heat. Neither of them are one-note; with Stewart displaying repressed strength for the timid Lou, and O’Brian showing compassion to counter her hulking physique.

With his long flowing mane (just cut it off, man!), Harris is a deadbeat criminal genius from hell. He fills in the gaps of characterization for his antagonistic role, and so does Franco with his nasty mullet. Glass may also swing for the fences a little too much near the end, resulting in some foul balls instead of the expected hits. But it’s easy to forgive the ambition, as there’s a lot here that you haven’t seen much of before. And with Refn out of the picture for now (and not in his peak form), there’s a vacancy for the role of delivering the unhinged pulp we so desperately crave.

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