There was a time, in the ’90s, when indie film noir thought it was being hip by imitating the trappings of ’40s thrillers — the dark shadows, Venetian blinds, and “slinky” femme fatales. But a true noir never really looks back; it’s always pushing forward, toward fresh new varieties of desire and dread. “Love Lies Bleeding” is like that. It’s the second feature directed by Rose Glass, the British director of “Saint Maud” (2019), and though it’s made with a powerful sense of style, there’s nothing retro or mannered about it. It’s set in a small desert town in rural grunge New Mexico in 1989, and from the opening moments, which unfold at the warehouse workout gym where Lou (Kristen Stewart) toils away as a manager (not too lofty a position — in the first scene, she unplugs a stuffed toilet with her gloved hand), the movie lets you taste the scuzzy deadbeat Western sleaze as surely as Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” did.
As Lou, Kristen Stewart has lank messy hair that hangs down in chopped bangs and a mullet by default, and she’s lean and desperate-looking. Approached for an after-work rendezvous by Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), a sexy cuddlebug, Lou turns her down, and we can tell why. She sleeps with Daisy sometimes, but now she’s waiting for something — someone — to wake her up. (She smokes like a chimney and is trying to quit.) Stewart invests the role with an avid hunger, stripping away her normally cool façade to give the film a charged center of vulnerability.
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Her wakeup call arrives in the form of Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a drifter from Oklahoma who shows up at the gym to pump iron. Jackie is not your everyday vagabond. She’s a bodybuilder, with thick arms and ripped abs, and it’s not just the muscles that pop; so does her come-hither grin, framed by a mop of curls. We first see her in the back seat of a car, with a skeeve named JJ (Dave Franco) pounding away at her from behind. But for the bisexual Jackie, this is mostly transactional. JJ has promised to get her a job, and does, at the local shooting range. Her communion with Lou, on the other hand, is pure heat, with the promise of something more made over eggs the next morning. We know it’s real when Lou gives Jackie a gift she would never get herself: a case full of steroids.
Film noir tends to be about two things: compulsive love and the crimes that get in the way of it. Lou and Jackie go out to dinner with Lou’s sister, Beth (Jena Malone), and her husband, who happens to be JJ. He’s got a mullet, too — a real humdinger, with stringy long strands in the back that don’t match in any way with the short mop on top. He’s a douche, but the real problem with him is that he’s a wife beater. Lou has known this a long time, and keeps offering vague threats about it.
But then JJ crosses a line. Beth lands in the hospital, with the left side of her face so cut and swollen she looks like the Elephant Woman. (The makeup, like many details in “Love Lies Bleeding,” is intensely realistic.) We assume, because good neo-noirs like “A Simple Plan” and “Nocturnal Animals” have encouraged us to assume, that Lou and Jackie will take this situation into their own hands and commit a crime they’ll spend the rest of the movie trying to hide from the police.
That’s a little bit of what happens. But “Love Lies Bleeding” carves out a scenario with its own flamboyant originality. Jackie is shooting the steroids, and unbeknownst to us they begin to affect not just her body but her mind. After going over to JJ’s house, she doesn’t just kick the crap out of him; she kills him by smashing his face down until he doesn’t have a face left. (When we finally see what he looks like, the image seems inspired by the most horrifying moment of Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible.”) JJ deserved retribution, but has Jackie gone crazy? Maybe so. Which raises the stakes in a crazy and fascinating way.
“Love Lies Bleeding” starts off lean and mean, then grows slowly and steadily more delirious. The other major character is Lou’s estranged father, Lou Sr., played by Ed Harris in a fringe of wispy long hair that frames his furrowed face and bald head so that he looks a creepy skull. Lou Sr. runs the shooting range, but really he’s a gangster connected to everything. (He also has a fetish for wriggly desert bugs.) Lou hasn’t seen him in a dozen years, but when it comes time to get rid of JJ’s body she figures she’ll do it by dumping it into the canyon outside of town that serves as Lou Sr.’s hitman graveyard. This is a not-so-simple plan, and it’s destined not to work.
There’s a reason why “Love Lies Bleeding,” which premiered tonight at Sundance, is in the festival’s Midnight section. As the movie goes on, it generates enough ultra-violence and gonzo twists to be a midnight movie. Does that mean that the film violates its noir roots? For a while, yes, and ultimately no. For even as we’re hanging on for dear life, watching Lou wrap bodies in carpets or seeing the most innocent person onscreen get executed, the movie creates a vision it sticks to. And that’s all about Jackie. At various points, we hear and see her muscles bulging, crackling, and growing, as if she were the Incredible Hulk, and this is not meant to be real; it’s a kind of metaphor. The steroids have taken her over, and when she goes to Vegas to participate in a bodybuilding competition, it’s both a triumph and a hallucinatory disaster. We think she’s lost it, or maybe lost herself.
But the film’s sly joke is that Jackie, in 1989, is becoming a new kind of woman, one who wears her strength on the outside. That’s why she has to pass through the looking glass of ‘roid-rage insanity to get to it. And that’s what Lou and Jackie’s love is rooted in: a new feminine power. “Love Lies Bleeding” turns wild and garish, and you may think the film is losing control, yet Rose Glass is fiercely in control of what she’s doing. She’s made a midnight noir that shoots over the top of our expectations but lands where it should, at a place where even valorous people have to go to extremes.
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