When any promising filmmaker is first coming into their powers, an excellent showcase for those powers is a tight little crime thriller. Think the Coen brothers in Blood Simple or the Wachowski sisters in Bound. But you don’t have to have a sibling to pull off this sort of calling card, which was the first for each of those pairs, but is the second for British director Rose Glass, who wowed us the first time out with one of the creepiest horror movies of the past five years – especially unlikely given that religious horror has found itself picked clean as a subgenre. But with her second feature, Love Lies Bleeding, Glass sets out to show us that her 2019 triumph Saint Maud didn’t define the sort of director she intends to be, and succeeds wildly in that regard.


In fact, the high quality of Glass’ two films might be the only thing really linking them. While in Saint Maud she got inside the head, almost literally, of a disturbed nurse who thinks she might be trying to rid a cancer patient of a demonic possession, here she’s giving us a more ensemble look at a series of dirtbags living in New Mexico in 1989. There are comparatively good dirtbags and comparatively nasty dirtbags, but they’re all pretty compromised, and they’re all going to get their hands dirty before this narrative is through.

The first dirtbag we meet is Lou (Kristen Stewart), the manager of a dank little pit where weightlifters come to benchpress their own body weight, and hit on each other in ways both welcome and unwelcome. The advances of vacuous neighbourhood girl Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov, Mikhail’s daughter) qualify as the latter, but Lou does have her eye on the new girl, Jackie (Katy O’Brian), who rolled into town the day before, and has her sights set on a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. Lou gives Jackie a place to stay and a bed to share, but little does she know that Jackie’s already slept with her cretinous brother-in-law J.J. (Dave Franco) in order to try to get a job at a local firing range. Her employer at the firing range? Lou’s even more cretinous father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), who’s got all sorts of shady business dealings and knows where the bodies are buried – literally.

Lou and Jackie would be our most sympathetic characters in this group, but neither of them is perfect either. Not only are Jackie’s methods of getting what she wants questionable, but she’s also got an anger issue that will only get triggered with the steroids she’s injecting into her butt. But oh wait, she wouldn’t have those steroids, wouldn’t have even considered seeking them out, if Lou had not offered them to her unprovoked, setting the narrative down a dangerous path from which there is no return. That’s especially the case when the pair get involved in J.J.’s chronic spousal abuse against Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone), which isn’t going to turn out well – not when Lou Sr. is going to get involved, bringing up memories of the shady past the younger Lou shared with him before she stopped speaking to him.

There’s something about the American southwest – Love Lies Bleeding was shot in and around Albuquerque, home to Breaking Bad – that truly evokes the scuzziness of garbage humans and their capacity for shitty choices. And that gives a story all the makings of the twisty sort of crime movie Glass wants to make, which she co-wrote with Weronika Tofilska. While all these characters can behave in shocking ways, there’s not a one of them that’s a caricature, which is a real credit to both the writing and to the actors they’ve cast. Even with his ratty long hair descending from a bald top, his lizard skin, and the glint in his eye that suggests he could tear you in two, Harris is easy to comprehend and almost like, belying our worst assumptions about him as often as he confirms them.


But the key to the film is undoubtedly the bond between Lou and Jackie, even with all the bumps in the road in their relationship. The pair’s chemistry is undeniable. This of course continues the indie track Stewart has been on for ten years since she was able to finish her contractual obligations to Twilight, but the character she plays here is still on the sketchier end of her spectrum. O’Brian may be more of the surprise, not exactly new to the screen but clearly cast primarily because she already had a bodybuilder’s physique. She looks a bit like Zendaya if Zendaya were to put on 20 kilos of pure muscle, and has at least some percentage of Zendaya’s charisma. The two have relatable vulnerabilities that help see us through their transgressions.

Clint Mansell’s score does for Love Lies Bleeding what the Tangerine Dream score did for a movie like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, another early calling card for an upcoming talent, which was released right around the time this movie is set. Namely, it helps really establish this time and place and suffuse it with a sense of electronic melancholy and decay.


If we are to continue examining Love Lies Bleeding through the lens of other crime noirs made by cinematic newcomers, as we did in the first paragraph of this review, Glass’ film does deviate from them with a few hooks that make it slightly higher concept. Both the bodybuilding milieu and its corresponding steroid use come close to being some kind of message by Glass, rather than just a backdrop, though she also does something with them in the climax that calls delightfully back to the ways Saint Maud stepped outside the bounds of realism. Really, though, the most high concept thing about Love Lies Bleeding is its good filmmaking. That’s a concept we could always use more of.


Love Lies Bleeding is currently playing in cinemas.

8 / 10