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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ a wild ride through dark humor, jolting story line

Katie Walsh – Tribune News Service (TNS)

The first time we glimpse Jackie (Katy O’Brian) on screen in “Love Lies Bleeding,” it is not particularly auspicious. But we haven’t yet seen Jackie through the eyes of Lou (Kristen Stewart), and that’s the only gaze that matters in this film. When Lou — the manager at a muscle-head gym — catches sight of Jackie prowling among the weight machines, skin gleaming, her powerfully muscular body reflected in the mirror, almost glowing, it’s like director Rose Glass is letting us in on a lusty little secret. Lou’s desire is so palpable you can smell it, and lucky for her, the feeling is mutual.

It’s 1989 in an anonymous Southwestern town, and Jackie is only drifting through on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. She’s seemingly dropped from the galaxies like one of the shooting stars that streaks across the vast night sky, and even in the desolate gym parking lot, their chemistry is supernova explosive.

But the reality of life in this small, rough town has an insistent, inevitable darkness. There’s Lou’s battered sister Beth (Jena Malone), and her philandering, abusive husband JJ (Dave Franco). There’s the FBI agents who would really like to talk to Lou about her estranged father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), who owns the gun range where Jackie has picked up a few waitressing shifts. There’s Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), a ditzy, nagging townie, who pops up, keening for attention, at the worst times.

There are too many connections and coincidences swirling around them, and as Lou and Jackie collide, sexually, there looms a bloodier collision on the horizon: sheer ominousness telegraphed in Lou’s red-drenched flashbacks.

The dusty desert setting and gritty crime noir genre is a swerve away from Glass’ debut feature “Saint Maud,” a psychological horror film about a British nurse in a damp seaside town who finds comfort and purpose in religious fervor and mortification of the flesh. In “Love Lies Bleeding,” which is written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska, a fixation on flesh persists, in a more operatically sensual (and often deeply gross) way — bodies pulsate with life, and chemicals: nicotine, steroids and the rush of post-coital oxytocin. But juxtaposed against Jackie’s pumped-up form, which thrums and bulges with vitality and violence, are the bodies that move the wrong way, spurt surprising fluids, and lie decaying, waiting to reveal their truths.

It is in this phantasmagorically corporeal obsession that Glass reveals the shared DNA of “Saint Maud” and “Love Lies Bleeding,” which are both about the twisted expansiveness of the female imagination, and whether or not that can transcend reality. The film takes a wild, Amazonian-sized swing in the third act that may puzzle some viewers who might be expecting something more grounded and gritty, but makes perfect sense when seen as an auteurist choice from Glass, who imagines an ending that, as in “Saint Maud,” is at once astonishingly, even shockingly, optimistic before slamming us back into the dirt.

But where “Saint Maud” is sorrowful, “Love Lies Bleeding” is darkly funny, and its own distinctive aesthetic expression. There is humor baked into almost every line reading and scene transition, edited by Mark Towns; the stink of sex and cigarettes permeates every dusky frame shot by Ben Fordesman. Clint Mansell’s score hums along from eerie ambience to ‘80s-style synth.

Stewart takes capably to the crime, and the comedy: We first meet Lou with her hand down a clogged toilet, and things never get less chaotic for her from there. She’s street smart but clumsy, playing in her father’s criminal sandbox though she doesn’t have a clue. At one point he asks if she’s threatening him and Stewart’s deadpan but desperate delivery of “yup,” is instantly classic.

O’Brian has been the breakout star of “Love Lies Bleeding” ever since the memorable first poster for the film debuted — on it, she’s a girl with a gun, and a very strong one at that. But for all of Jackie’s strength, O’Brian performs her with a sense of innocence and wide-eyed wonder at her own well-honed capabilities. She has an otherworldly, even alien quality at times, which is at odds with Lou, who is impelled to muck around in the mud and blood. But Glass suggests that there’s something to be found in that kind of delusional belief, that it’s not only possible but worth it to achieve cosmic nirvana, if only for a moment, even if gravity may eventually come calling.

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‘LOVE LIES BLEEDING’

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Running time: 1:44

MPA rating: R (for violence and grisly images, sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use)

Where to watch: In theaters Friday

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©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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