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Seasoned Ticket, The Scarecrow Wire

The Seasoned Ticket #260: LOVE LIES BLEEDING

Posted March 15th 2024

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. This series of "critic's notes" is chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connect them to the riches of Scarecrow's collection.

Give Love Lies Bleeding credit for announcing its boundaries, or lack thereof, at the start: We meet our protagonist, Lou (Kristen Stewart), as she swabs out the filthy toilet in the bathroom of the fitness club where she works—given the depiction of this job, "swabs" is an insufficient term for how gnarly Lou's effort is here. The grossness of the moment, and by extension its measure of Lou's level in life, is not left to the imagination.

It's not that Love Lies Bleeding will revel in grotesquerie, although there will be regurgitation and at least one explicitly-stomped human head to reckon with. It's more that director Rose Glass is intent on erasing boundaries not of good taste but of realism and the rules of audience expectation. Does the ad campaign make you anticipate a torrid kind of lesbian mad-love noir, an edgy walk on the wild side that will ultimately provide a bit of female-forward empowerment? Well… Love Lies Bleeding is that, sort of, but not in the way you'd expect. Hang on to the handrails, target audience, whoever you might be.

Lou is stranded in a New Mexico town where her monstrous father, Lou Senior (Ed Harris, embracing the Cryptkeeper) is a feared local kingpin. (Let me stop here to say that the movie does poorly at establishing how this reign of terror works or what this town looks or feels like—it's hard to picture the elder Lou's hold on this amorphous spot, so that when the film eventually comes to his desert mansion, I had a tough time reconciling the place with what else we'd seen. And for that matter, it took a while just to realize that this is Lou's father, but maybe that one's on me.) The noir appears when Lou meets Jackie (Katy O'Brian), a bodybuilder-drifter who crashes at Lou's place after a night of exultant sex. The story's ground-level villain is JJ (Dave Franco), a man begging to have his head stomped in. (Once you meet him, you will realize this is not a spoiler.) Lou also has an ex-galpal (Anna Baryshnikov), intro'ed early as a plot complication.

This could be done straightforwardly and it would click; the bones of the question "Why can't we do a Blood Simple?" stick out of the storyline. But Love Lies Bleeding wants more than that, which is good, because the neo-noir frequently feels mechanical, and aside from the haircuts there's little evocation of the 1989 setting (linguistic sin: JJ calling his children "my dudes," presumably an actor's improvisation, a coinage that wouldn't happen for another two decades plus).

The "more" comes in the form of the film's bent for surrealism, which reveals that the true cinematic lineage here is not the Coen family but the world of David Lynch's Lost Highway and Wild at Heart—and how this manifests itself is one thing that shouldn't be spoiled. Glass has been cunning in injecting the presence of steroids (or growth hormones, or whatever these things were called in '89) into the story—used by Jackie for her muscle-ballooning regimen, and somewhat incongruously supplied by Lou, from her proximity to the junk at work. This means the movie can indulge in passages of, if not magical realism, then substance-altered realism. Fair enough, and why not?

Glass's previous film was the tense horror trip Saint Maud, and the new one is more adventurous and less focused. I like it more in retrospect—after the extent of its real weirdness became clear—than I did while it was on. Among other irritations, the out-there-ness of the style means that very good people like Kristen Stewart and Ed Harris don't have much of a chance to actually act—everybody here is a "look," from Stewart's truck-stop mullet to Baryshnikov's meth-browned teeth, and that's mostly where it stops. Those looks are clever, though, and at some point you just have to roll with the confident daftness of the thing.

March 15, 2024