LOVE LIES BLEEDING Review: Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian Lead Middling Surreal Thriller

The Illuminerdi's Maxance Vincent checks in to review the new A24 release, Love Lies Bleeding, a new thriller starring Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart.
Love Lies Bleeding - Movie

The best part of Rose Glass’ debut feature, Saint Maud, occurs at the tail end of the picture, where it briefly cuts to reality as Maud (Morfydd Clark) screams agonizingly while being burned alive. It’s the most potent image of the entire movie and completely re-shifts the audience’s perception of what they saw beforehand through an incredibly unreliable narrator. In her sophomore effort, Love Lies Bleeding, Glass can still communicate her ideas through strong image-making, which come to fruition in its larger-than-life, evocative ending. However, she seemingly can’t muster up interest before its most striking shot arrives on screen.

While Saint Maud was a straightforward psychological horror film that deftly examined fanaticism, through one of the strongest acting breakout performances I’ve seen this decade from Morfydd Clark, Love Lies Bleeding has a hard time finding its identity as it shifts through multiple tones and genres, aiming for shock value and not much else beyond it. 

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The film starts out as a casual romance, as gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) meets bodybuilder Jackie (Katy M. O’Brian) while she is working out. Immediately impressed by her physique and demeanor, the two quickly fall in love after they share a cigarette in the gym’s parking lot, with Jackie moving into Lou’s apartment. The bodybuilder works at Lou Sr.’s (Ed Harris) shooting range despite the gym owner warning her to stay away from him. Jackie quickly meets Lou’s other family members, including sister Beth (Jena Malone), who is having marital troubles with her husband, J.J. (Dave Franco). 

Image via A24

When we get introduced to Beth, her arm is cast, and her lips are bruised. Already, we know something is wrong as J.J. attempts to kick Lou out of their house as she enters, while Beth doesn’t do anything about her husband’s abuse. However, things take a turn for the worse as J.J. beats her to the point that she is severely hospitalized. This leads Lou and Jackie on a revenge-fueled quest to bring down the people responsible for Beth’s hospitalization, which will lead straight to her father, whose criminal operations run far deeper than the film initially shows. 

Love Lies Bleeding Severely Lacks Identity

In 104 minutes, the film amalgamates a romance, a domestic drama, a crime thriller, and surreal fantasy, with as many bold storytelling swings as possible to keep audiences invested until another terrific final shot for Glass. And while its swings are certainly interesting, Glass seems to have difficulty connecting the dots, whether implicitly or otherwise. In an era where most American films handhold audiences to no end and consistently undermine their intelligence to figure out what’s going on, Glass’ approach feels refreshingly unique, even if it was a more common practice twenty or so years ago. 

Image via A24

However, her presentation isn’t as interesting as she thinks, and the bold swings are more compelling on the surface than they are when the audience begins to think about it. One of the film’s strongest moments sees Jackie participate in a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas, high off steroids. Her viewpoint slowly distorts itself as she presents her perfectly ripped body to its judges while her mind imagines some of her most recent, darkest moments.

Suddenly, a massive lump makes its way into her throat, where she violently vomits amniotic fluid as Lou gets reborn. An astute audience will notice a shift in Jackie’s behavior as her situation worsens immediately after this scene ends. While it’s undoubtedly a way to develop more interest in its visual storytelling as the film reaches its surreal ending, the shift feels more developed in the character’s surface rather than innately psychological. 

It’s a weird thing to say because Glass, along with cinematographer Ben Fordesman, do a great job of giving long moments of gazing between the two protagonists. Glass fundamentally understands that the most powerful moment of any romantic tale is the gaze that leads to true love, to which Stewart and O’Brian do intensely in some of the film’s most pivotal moments. 

Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian Save Love Lies Bleeding

In fact, the film immediately compels because of Stewart and O’Brian’s incredibly palpable chemistry. Stewart has consistently refined herself as an actor by working with Olivier Assayas, Pablo Larrain, and David Cronenberg. She continues collaborating with some of the most intriguing filmmakers working today through Glass with another magisterial turn. Her intense gaze is only a piece of the puzzle for this incredibly complex and layered protagonist, whose obsession grows stronger as she learns more about Jackie. 

Image via A24

O’Brian has been a rising star lately, making a splash last year in large-scale productions from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (where she portrayed Jentorra), and The Mandalorian. She shared arguably the best episode of The Mandalorian’s relatively lackluster third season with Omid Abtahi’s Dr. Pershing. Her turn in both productions has shown a great knack for talent, but one that couldn’t be fully exploited within the confines of a megabudget blockbuster. 

With a production like Love Lies Bleeding, O’Brian can fully lean into Jackie’s psychology and deliver a performance bound to knock your socks off in awe, fully aware of the character’s intense physicality and gaze. But it’s in her quieter moments where Jackie shines the most, leaning into the character’s intense vulnerability to feed her broken, tormented soul as she consistently numbs herself with steroids to escape her dark reality. It’s the type of raw emotion we seldom see in movies and posits O’Brian as one to watch since she will inevitably take riskier roles to challenge herself as an actor. 

It’s no surprise, then, that their chemistry fires off all cylinders and invests us further in the picture than anything else. At the same time, Jena Malone and Dave Franco’s characters are pitifully underdeveloped and underwritten. However, it does help tremendously to have a seasoned veteran like Ed Harris infuse life in another riveting antagonist portrayal whose classic but thoughtfully written arc is unfortunately cut short by the biggest tonal whiplash of any movie seen this year so far. 

A24 has made its brand by selling often wild and cerebral moviegoing experiences that have polarized audiences, and Love Lies Bleeding certainly falls in that category. While its images of Ed Harris bathed in a red carlight as he fires his gun point blank, while Clint Mansell’s score booms out of the speakers, will stick with me, I’m not entirely sure that the entirety of Love Lies Bleeding will. 

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The love story of Love Lies Bleeding is the film’s best attribute, with Stewart and O’Brian giving massively impressive turns. Still, once it shifts course as a revenge thriller, it slowly loses steam and severely lacks dramatic tension. The multiple tonal swings are certainly welcomed in such an insecure movie environment. Still, its inability to engage with any of its surreal images makes it less psychologically active than it should be. As a result, Glass consistently chooses the easy way out and undermines the tension between its two leads and her story. 

Once it’s clear the story will swerve around in circles with the introduction of a new love interest for Lou, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), Love Lies Bleeding sinks even further and becomes a relatively toothless thriller that barks with its eye-catching image-making but never bites hard into its themes and images. As such, the end result feels hollow and toothless instead of daring and wildly refreshing. It’s certainly unique, but at what cost?

Rating: 3/5

About Love Lies Bleeding

Love Lies Bleeding poster

Release Date: March 8, 2024 (Limited)/March 15, 2024 (Wide)
Director: Rose Glass
Screenplay: Rose Glass, Weronika Tofilska
Music: Clint Mansell
Producers: Andrea Cornwall & Oliver Kassman
Production: Film4, Escape Plan, Lobo Films
Distribution: A24
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Katy M. O’Brian, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Dave Franco, and Anna Baryshnikov

Synopsis: Gym manager Lou falls for Jackie, a bodybuilder who is passing through town en route to a competition in Las Vegas.

Love Lies Bleeding is now playing in theatres. What did you think of the movie? What is your favorite Kristen Stewart performance? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on social media!

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Picture of Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent

Maxance is a freelance film and TV writer, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the University of Montreal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies.