Two women pose in front of a car, leaning on each other.

‘Love Lies Bleeding’: The Queer Crime Drama That’ll Sweep You Off Your Feet

The 74th Berlin Film Festival plays host to Rose Glass’ muscle-bound work of madness

Katy O'Brian (left) and Kristen Stewart (right)

Courtesy of A24

From Reacher to The Rock, Hollywood’s male action heroes can still be as buff as they were in the 1980s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone dominated the screen. However, the rock-hard, muscular woman with a bodybuilder’s physique has rarely been a staple of mainstream American movies. There have been minor exceptions in the ’80s, ’90s, and even the 2010s—the likes of Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez in Aliens, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, and Emily Blunt’s lean, mean “full metal bitch” Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow—but the physical confines for Hollywood’s leading ladies have always been narrower than their male counterparts. This is part of why Rose Glass’ lurid crime thriller Love Lies Bleeding feels so transgressive.

The A24 production, set fittingly in the ’80s, sees perturbed rural gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) fall for the starry-eyed bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O’Brian), leading to a violent domino effect involving Lou’s deranged, gun range-owning mobster father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). Grimy, sweaty, and fearlessly queer, the film flies in the face of both gendered expectations, and the industry’s sanded-down, “kumbaya” vision of harmless queer assimilation, rendering it jagged and uneven by design. It isn’t just funny, sexy, and chaotic, but radical in the way it presents fun, sex, and chaos: as sapphic disruptions to all things normative.

Stewart lures us into the film with Lou’s snappy temper, which she also turns inward, making it bone-deep. It’s a recognizably rankled performance, familiar in its protruding edges, from an actress who continually finds new avenues to traverse (and forge) in the American arthouse scene. This time, she lives on the precipice of explosion, even during mundane interactions, and her reasons start to become clear from the get-go. Her waking moments are plagued by blood-soaked memories—awash in deep red light, and presented in brief, visceral, impressionistic vignettes—of her and her estranged father gunning down men who are gagged and bound, before dropping them into a chasm. It’s a past she hopes to escape, even though she works just down the road from her criminal kingpin dad.

Father and daughter have had no contact in years, even though the undercover FBI agents training at Lou’s warehouse gym refuse to believe it. However, things are thrown into disarray when a mysterious, seemingly innocent outsider, Jackie, happens to take up work at Lou Sr.’s range, while working out at Lou’s gym. Before this coincidence sets dangerous events in motion, Lou and Jackie’s eyes meet during a routine workout, leading to sexual tensions that quickly implode into exuberant sexual encounters. The boyish Lou—who’s occasionally seen rebuffing the advances of local femme lesbian Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov)—is immediately taken by Jackie’s uninhibited, unapologetically buff stature (“You’ve got some pretty serious lines going,” Lou tells her flirtatiously). Jackie, who’s passing through town en route to a Vegas bodybuilding competition, is equally smitten with the sultry Lou, who soon begins supplying her with steroids that she injects like heroin.

Glass’ camera (courtesy of cinematographer Ben Fordesman) illuminates the contours of O’Brian’s sweating arms and torso, whether in the bedroom or by the weight racks. When coupled with the film’s turbulent editing, this creates an intoxicating effect. Before long, sex, drugs, and pumping iron begin to feel like the same kind of dopamine hit, arriving with dizzying dolly-zooms, and taking on strange and exciting physiological properties. At one point, Jackie’s veins and muscles suddenly begin to pop—as though she were “hulking out”—courtesy not only of the injections, but of Lou going down on her. Each time Love Lies Bleeding breaks its own realism is delightful and surprising, but it always feels immediately at one with the film’s rollicking crime-movie momentum, thanks in no small part to the intense, pulpy atmosphere crafted by composer Clint Mansell.

Before long, sex, drugs, and pumping iron begin to feel like the same kind of dopamine hit, arriving with dizzying dolly-zooms, and taking on strange and exciting physiological properties.

As sex turns to romance, and experimentation to addiction, the duo ends up drawn into a criminal comedy of errors involving Lou Sr., Lou’s long-suffering sister Beth (Jena Malone), and her abusive, ratty husband J.J. (Dave Franco), a rocky family portrait if there ever was one. In getting involved with Lou, Jackie has no choice but to exist in close proximity to her family, and to her past, as though she were taking on all her baggage. It’s a typical relationship story, made entirely atypical by the presence of firearms, and the rage-inducing side-effects of Jackie’s steroids, which tips the movie over into unhinged, gut-churning violence. 

While no one in the film seems bothered by Lou’s queerness (least of all her father), the slow but steady demolition of gender norms goes hand-in-hand with an unraveling of the fragile social fabric between the characters, as though she and Jackie were upsetting an uneasy peace. Between Lou’s name, her criminal past, and her vivid flashbacks that match her father’s close-ups to her own, she’s a woman practically molded in a man’s image. And while the alternative of retreating into femininity implicitly exists (in the form of Daisy, who’s presented as overbearingly feminine), the idea of escaping her circumstances must, by its nature, involve neither these traditionally masculine or feminine modes, but rather, a form of cinematic lust and expression untethered from either one. The film ends up living in this latter space, making it especially unpredictable.

Two women sit on the floor, close together. Signs on the walls behind them read motivational quotes such as "Turn up the heat."

The romance between Jackie (Katy O'Brian) and Lou (Kristen Stewart) becomes dangerously complicated.

Courtesy of A24

Given the setting and time period, there’s a sense of magical realism to how readily Lou and Jackie are accepted by everyone around them—nobody really bats an eye at queer folks in this dilapidated town, despite its conservative cultural coding; it’s not that kind of story—which also goes hand-in-hand with a few other instances of niche, surreal fetishism that seem to come entirely out of left field. When they materialize, in sudden ways that definitively impact the plot, they still feel entirely at one with the movie’s gonzo, hyper-charged approach. Situations escalate from zero to 60 in milliseconds, as the movie takes wild twists and turns, all of which stem directly or indirectly from the relationship drama at its core. Everything that’s “wrong,” in the movie’s non-traditional structure and zigzag movement from beat to beat, feels immediately right.

The film’s constant building and unraveling is reminiscent of films by Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men). Love Lies Bleeding fittingly comes out the same year as the latter brother’s solo effort, Drive Away Dolls, a lesbian road trip movie. However, while a Coen Bros. caper is usually tongue-in-cheek, Glass’ version of this type of story is fiercely committed to its gimmick, even when it goes off the rails and follows Jackie down a rabbit-hole of steroid-induced delirium.

Glass maintains immense control over the movie even in these moments, anchoring every twist and tonal transformation to a tale of what love means within these amped-up genre confines. It’s violent, and often sickening, given the lengths to which these characters will go to protect (and sometimes hurt) each other. But it’s also pure and unadulterated, with an undercurrent of naïveté, captured by O’Brian’s wide-eyed performance. However, rather than preserving this radiant innocence placed constantly at risk, Love Lies Bleeding gives in to its most vicious impulses. The result is “be gay, do crime” at its most lustful and hypnotic.

Published on February 23, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter