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Sundance 2024 Film review: Despite muscular plot, ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ falters under weight of weak script

Katy O’Brian (left) and Kristen Stewart (right) star in “Love Lies Bleeding.” The film premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of A24)

“Love Lies Bleeding”

Directed by Rose Glass 

A24

By Talia Sajor

Jan. 30, 2024 2:04 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 30 at 9:19 p.m. 

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

In need of bulking, “Love Lies Bleeding” fails to lift the weight.

Directed and co-written by Rose Glass, the crime-thriller follows Lou (Kristen Stewart), a withdrawn gym manager, and Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a hitchhiking bodybuilder, as their destructive romance rapidly begins to unlock hidden secrets about Lou’s family and past. Although Glass provides a gripping plot through the lens of the 1980s Southwest, the film’s central themes are ultimately clouded by tonal confusion and underdeveloped storytelling.

Upon meeting Lou at the Crater Gym, viewers are immediately drawn into the extreme world of gym life. Intense camerawork by cinematographer Ben Fordesman captures close-ups of the gymgoers’ vigorous routines and physiques. Similarly, the art direction adds to the ruggedness and ferocity of Jackie’s bodybuilding ambitions and the crime-filled world led by Lou’s father (Ed Harris) within the ’80s Americana backdrop.

[Related: Film review: A triumph of absurdist fantasy, ‘Poor Things’ delivers Emma Stone at her best]

For example, crude motivational signs are hung inside the simple yet austere gym, including one that reads, “Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body.” The costumes also add a time-appropriate aid to the overall feel with color-blocked windbreakers, cut-off shorts and graphic muscle tees.

Throughout the film, it is clear why Stewart and O’Brian were chosen to portray Lou and Jackie and their toxic love affair. From subtle glances to passionate touches, the pair radiates with undeniable chemistry. But despite the impeccable casting choices and Glass’ intentional eroticism, there are moments where the sexual explicitness felt overbearing. Considering the rapid pacing of Lou and Jackie’s relationship, these could have been swapped for scenes that furthered their romantic storyline instead of randomly placed sex scenes that do nothing to further the narrative.

Alongside Stewart and O’Brian, the ensemble consisted of Harris, Dave Franco, Jena Malone and Anna Baryshnikov, who all play contrastingly different characters, yet each gives their own haunting performance. Still, O’Brian continuously steals the screen – and not just with every flex of her chiseled frame, demonstrated to portray Jackie as a godlike symbol through the eyes of Lou. She captures Jackie’s malignant drive to win a bodybuilding competition and rage as she seeks revenge on Lou’s abusive brother-in-law, played by Franco, in a way that strikes a chord among viewers.

Although the movie is held up by strong support, it unfortunately collapses from a weakened foundation: the screenplay. The bodybuilding space adds a muscular twist to the obsessed artist trope, further adding nuance from its queer perspective. But it is in its murderous subplot that Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska fail to make “Love Lies Bleeding” something worthy of winning over the audience.

Cuts of a glowing red ravine, Lou’s father menacingly staring into the camera and Lou holding up a gun to a blindfolded man tied to a chair are awkwardly placed to foreshadow Lou’s sinister past. But outside of these questionable shots, the film does nothing to further explore this. As the cat-and-mouse game between Lou and her father – which often feels like just another crime cliche – comes to an end, many questions are still left unanswered once the credits roll in.

Furthermore, it is frankly unclear what Glass’ intentions are throughout the film. Regardless of the amount of violence and gore, there are times when uncertain laughs are elicited from the audience that feel inappropriate in the context of the grim subject matters within “Love Lies Bleeding.”

[Related: Film review: With slow burn, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ meticulously confronts American greed]

Undoubtedly, the most jarring and muddling moment comes about during the movie’s climax. As Lou’s father stands above her, having already taken two bullets, Jackie slowly begins to grow and break out of her clothing in ill-fitting Marvel fashion. She also doesn’t even grow in muscle – which would have been more understandable based on the foreshadowing of her taking multiple steroid shots and close-ups of her protruding veins – but rather merely expands in size into an oddly CGI-ed Katy O’Brian giant.

All things considered, at the base of “Love Lies Bleeding” lies an exhilarating plot that explores the toxic cycle of the lengths one will go for those and what they love. But even in the hands of a stellar cast, the script reduces the heart of the movie to nothing more than jumbled, unfinished subplots that teeter into an overdone and stereotypical crime-fest.

Perhaps it’s best to let the love continue to lie out and bleed.

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Talia Sajor | Arts editor
Sajor is the 2023-2024 Arts editor. She previously served as the 2022-2023 Theater | film | television editor and a Photo, Opinion and PRIME contributor. She is also a third-year communication student from Oxnard, California.
Sajor is the 2023-2024 Arts editor. She previously served as the 2022-2023 Theater | film | television editor and a Photo, Opinion and PRIME contributor. She is also a third-year communication student from Oxnard, California.
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