Love Lies Bleeding (R) ★★

Review Date: March 15th, 2024

It's a shame that, for all the good things Love Lies Bleeding does, the ending is such a complete disaster. After more than 90 minutes spent exploring neo-noir tropes and crafting a fascinatingly ambiguous lead character, Rose Glass' sophomore feature implodes with such violent finality that all one can think about leaving the theater is the derisive laughter of a majority of those in the audience. Defenders of the film will grope for explanations of what the last, disastrous scene represents, but I'm less interested in any potential symbolism than in what's up on the screen. And even the expression "wtf?" doesn't quite cover it.

For most of its running time, Love Lies Bleeding wallows in the styling and plot contortions of a modern noir thriller, albeit with a few twists. We've seen this setting - a nowhere town in a depressed state - often enough. The year is 1989 (established by TV inserts of the fall of the Berlin Wall) but it might as well be decades earlier. The characters are struggling to stay afloat without worrying about tomorrow, let alone next week. The cops are crooked and the bad guy doesn't have time for sardonic wit or dark humor. He's just bad to the bone. The protagonist quickly finds herself trapped in a situation not of her own making and, the harder she tries to get out of it, the deeper into the muck she sinks. Glass pulls us along for the trippy ride with her moody visuals and nods to old-school classics...until she pulls the rug out from under us, trashing her movie thoroughly in the process. It's something we probably should have seen coming every time she visually references Lou Ferrigno's transformation (without the green skin) from the old TV series "The Incredible Hulk."

Jackie (Katy O'Brian) is a bodybuilder passing through town on her way to a contest in Vegas. Lou (Kristen Stewart) is trapped in the dead-end locale, running a gym owned by her crooked father, Lou. Sr. (Ed Harris). The cops are in Lou Sr.'s pockets and although his other daughter, Beth (Jena Malone), is being abused by her violent, philandering husband, J.J. (Dave Franco), he is disinclined to act decisively. Lou sticks around to protect her sister, although she's not doing a very good job of it by the time Jackie comes on the scene. Sparks between Lou and Jackie result in some vigorous workouts under (and on top of) the sheets. Lou falls hard for Jackie but it's unclear whether the reverse is true or whether Jackie sees Lou as a means to an end - classic femme fatale territory. That's when steroids are introduced into the story and, although injecting them into her body gives Jackie's physique a boost, it has the opposite effect on her mind. Soon there's violence, blood, and a corpse.

Since embracing mainstream success with the Twilight series, Kristen Stewart has gone out of her way to seek challenging, non-mainstream projects such as this one - an LGBQT+ focused story with a strong female lead. This is one of her best recent performances. She embraces the "grayness" of the character and makes Lou relatable despite a gruesome past and a penchant for making bad decisions. Katy O'Brian gives a strong turn as Jackie although the character is underwritten - not usual for femme fatales. Ed Harris, who still has a strong screen presence at age 73, turns in another memorable role as a villain.

The degree to which Glass' decisions regarding the climax compromise the movie as a whole is up for individual interpretation. Some might view this as a crazy misstep, an audacious attempt at doing something different that doesn't work. From my perspective, however, good movies have good endings and since this one falls far short of claiming the latter, it can't be considered the former. There's still quite a bit to like here, from the strong sense of atmosphere to the layers of a Hitchcockian plot, but this is not a complete movie. And when viewers are laughing at a movie rather than with it, something has gone awry.

© 2024 James Berardinelli