Love Lies Bleeding: interesting character study left bleeding at the end

Rose Glass, “Love Lies Bleeding” (2024)

A surprisingly entertaining film, spoilt only by a cartoonish climax of wishful female empowerment in which love, even lesbian love, literally conquers all, “Love Lies Bleeding” is a neo-noir study of desire and obsession among alienated individuals in a bleak small-town environment somewhere in New Mexico in 1989. Reclusive loner Lou (Kristen Stewart) manages a gym by day and keeps to herself with only her cat for company at night in a dreary routine – at least until a stranger from out of town, Jackie (Katy O’Brian) turns up and starts working out there regularly. Lou falls heavily for Jackie, who is on her way to a body-building competition in Las Vegas, and the two quickly become a pair. Lou offers Jackie some steroids to help her bulk up and after initially hesitating, Jackie accepts them. From there, Jackie moves into Lou’s apartment. Unbeknownst to Lou, Jackie had already obtained work as a waitress in a restaurant attached to a shooting range owned by Lou’s father Lou Sr (Ed Harris), from whom Lou has long been estranged, after having a quickie with Lou’s brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco). Lou Sr happens to be the local drug kingpin and weapons trafficker with a hobby of cultivating beetles and other bugs.

Lou does eventually learn what Jackie has done after the two have dinner with JJ and Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) and there’s some tension between the two lovers afterwards which they quickly patch up when they realise FBI agents are watching them. Lou later discovers that Beth is in hospital on life support after having been brutally beaten by JJ. Lou Sr arrives and promises to care for Beth and her children. Jackie, having become emotionally affected by constant steroid use, goes after JJ and beats him to death.

This of course upsets Lou and the two lovers dispose of JJ’s body and burn it (and his car) in a ravine where Lou used to help Lou Sr get rid of his business rivals. The lovers quarrel and Jackie leaves in a huff, hitch-hiking to Las Vegas to compete in the body-building competition where unfortunately she hallucinates during a solo routine and vomits. She believes other contestants are commenting on her and attacks them, for which she ends up in jail.

From there, Lou Sr insinuates himself back into Lou’s life by bailing out Jackie and forcing her to kill Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) who has blackmailed Lou into a relationship with her by threatening to go to police with information that she has seen Lou drive JJ’s car on the night of his disappearance. After nearly being killed by a cop on Lou Sr’s payroll, Lou bludgeons the office and drives to her father’s mansion to rescue Jackie and confront her father, threatening to turn him over to the FBI agents by reporting his criminal activities to them.

Up to this point the film is gritty and intense, with a particular visual aesthetic, emphasised by bird’s-eye view shots that help highlight the bleak and rather insulated environment in which the action takes place. In such an environment where everyone knows one another and secrets can be hard to hide, perhaps it’s no wonder that Lou, more by necessity than because of nature, prefers to lie low and avoid others, most of all her gangster boss father, while trying to protect her sister Beth from JJ’s violence. (Needless to say, Beth doesn’t appreciate her sister’s efforts and defends JJ.) Yet because Lou is so estranged from others and appears to have little to live for, when an outsider does arrive, representing the possibility of change and a new life, Lou ends up being blown away by this stranger even though she knows nothing of Jackie’s background and the possibility that Jackie herself is running away from the law. Kristen Stewart puts in an intense performance as Lou and this pays off handsomely: though Lou is hardly a lovable person, the character comes across as very troubled, complicated and credible with all her flaws and bad judgement. Commendably O’Brian, in her first lead / co-lead role, matches Stewart’s performance in emotional intensity so that viewers can believe Jackie really is hiding a violent, even murderous past and that she is an unstable character even without the steroid abuse.

The rest of the cast does good work, though Ed Harris, even at his most understated, does chew the scenery whenever he appears. As it develops, the plot seems rather languid, but it does become surprisingly fast as it draws closer to the climax. Unfortunately, when the climax does come, it becomes a completely surreal and cartoony She-Hulk affair, very much at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, and the resolution of the plot and its threads and sub-threads are left ambiguous. What happens next looks very much like fantasy, with Lou’s leg wound suddenly disappearing, and the two lovers on their way to another adventure together.

After what was looking like quite an edgy romance thriller film with believable characters whose wrong decisions land them in deeper and deeper trouble, “Love Lies Bleeding” ends up going through a surprising twist that leaves behind a bad taste. The film would have been more credible if the audience had been treated to a second ending that shows what actually did (or might have) happened while preserving some ambiguity about whether Lou and Jackie remain together, or if Lou can truly escape her violent family past.