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“Love Lies Bleeding” reviewed

In her second feature, “Love Lies Bleeding,” Rose Glass does something similar to her debut, Saint Maud – but to different effect. The movie, shot from a script by Glass and Weronika Tofilska, is based on a good idea, a battle to reveal the hidden grip of a predatory small-town patriarch, but here, too, Glass’s reliance on genre conventions—in this case, those of neo-noir—prevents her from fully working out the narrative premise. The result is more entertaining this time, though, because Glass fashions the premise into such a clever, brisk, and twisty story.

The focus of “Love Lies Bleeding” is a young woman, Lou (Kristen Stewart), who’s stuck in her New Mexico home town. She’s a gym manager with little to manage but much grunt work to do; the film’s first sequence finds her unclogging a toilet with a gloved hand. Lou can’t take her eyes off a new arrival at the gym, a well-muscled woman named Jackie (Katy O’Brian), who works at a gun range. Jackie is a drifter who has hitchhiked to town en route to Las Vegas, where she plans to take part in a bodybuilding competition. She and Lou become lovers the same night they meet and, the next morning, Jackie moves in.

The town’s evil patriarch is Lou’s father, Lou, Sr. (Ed Harris), who owns the gym and the gun range, and also, essentially, the police department. He’s been getting away with murder for years, and when Lou was younger he involved her in his crimes. She loathes him but remains tethered to him, because she must stay in town to help her sister, Beth (Jena Malone), who is trapped in an abusive marriage to a guy named J.J. (Dave Franco). Lou also wants to help Jackie, and offers her a supply of illegal steroid shots to boost her chances in Las Vegas. Jackie quickly bulks up but also develops a severe case of ’roid rage, leading to a terrifying act of vigilante justice. Now Lou must find a way to dispose of evidence. Thanks to Lou, Sr.,’s horrific example, Lou knows what to do, but her father, ever tentacular, gets wind of what’s going on. Fearing that the young lovers will expose his bloody deeds, he lays plans to silence them—and anyone else he thinks may compromise him.

The tale unfolds with wit and dramatic flair. Even on second viewing, with surprises dispelled and spoilers spoiled, the twists hold up, as engrossing to anticipate as they previously were to be jolted by. But this is a movie that gives with one hand and takes away with the other, and as its pleasures mount so, too, does a sense of emptiness. The events onscreen don’t feel so much observed as dispensed, as if the filmmaker’s inspirations peaked at the keyboard. Glass pegs “Love Lies Bleeding” to its genre with splashes of gore, garish light effects, and flamboyantly grotesque idiosyncrasies, such as Lou, Sr.,’s affection for big and exotic insects, and his conspicuously dubious hair style.

Amid the generalized atmosphere of seaminess, the specifics of the main characters’ lives get elided. Lou’s traumatic past is examined only as much as is necessary to establish, in a series of quick flashbacks, her participation in her father’s crimes. The movie, cutting from one plot point to the next, doesn’t give the two women much space or time for the sorts of offhand conversation that can reveal character; they share few confidences and disclose no observations or opinions, no tastes or distastes. What they do share is sexual desire. Their mutual attraction is the movie’s prime force. Most of the sex scenes, while forthright, are conventional, with rounds of writhing and panting, but one of them, rooted in the couple’s explicit talk about pleasure, is unusual and acute. Ultimately, though, desire seems to be all that defines the women’s bond.

The movie’s incuriosity about the characters’ larger ideas and experiences dulls one of its enticing peculiarities. “Love Lies Bleeding” is a period piece, set in 1989, an era evoked from the start by an odd collection of vintage cars, including Lou’s two-tone pickup. People make calls on landlines and pay phones, and a news broadcast reports East Germans facing no opposition as they jubilantly cross over to the West. Yet Lou and Jackie have nothing to say about the events of their time and show little interest in the wider world. The one cultural object in Lou’s apartment is a 1988 book of short stories by Patrick Califia, “Macho Sluts,” a pioneering work of lesbian B.D.S.M. literature; it gets more attention from a nosy F.B.I. agent than from Lou or Jackie.

In this regard, “Love Lies Bleeding” is very much a movie of the current moment; it resembles such acclaimed recent releases as “Past Lives” and “All of Us Strangers” in its presentation of protagonists whose intellectual and cultural lives are portrayed only to the extent that they serve the plot. Today, the labor of movies is increasingly being outsourced—to viewers. Many films are basically kits that require the audience to do the work not merely of interpretation but of characterization, based on a handful of clues. For Lou, these details are her sisterly bond with Beth and her criminal one with the father she hates; as for Jackie, she was adopted at thirteen—a bullied fat kid who therefore learned to fight, and then fled the religious narrowness of her home town in rural Oklahoma. Those specifics frame “Love Lies Bleeding” as a game of cinematic Mad Libs, inviting viewers to fill in the blanks with whatever traits, interests, inclinations, enthusiasms, and backstories they like.

Such blankness is all the stranger because Glass nods to a film that relies on similar material but achieves far more with it—the first-generation noir classic “Bigger Than Life,” from 1956, which has the distinction of being, in effect, a primordial ’roid-rage movie. Directed by Nicholas Ray and based on reporting, in this magazine, by Berton Roueché, the movie stars James Mason as a schoolteacher named Ed who is given a diagnosis of a vascular disease that would likely be fatal were it not for a new “miracle drug,” cortisone. But the medicine has side effects, and Ed experiences grandiose delusions that ultimately make him violent. Ray symbolizes this derangement with startling images, at one point using forced perspective to make Ed appear taller than a school building. Taking a cue from Ray, Glass briefly, ingeniously depicts the steroid-addled Jackie as an actual giant able to grab people as if they were dolls. But where the framework of “Bigger Than Life” is a starting point for surprisingly far-reaching psychological and cultural explorations, the framework of “Love Lies Bleeding” serves as a boundary limiting both character and context.

Although the roles in Glass’s film are not deeply defined, she nonetheless revels in the presence and manner of her actors, whose formidable personalities burst out of the tight bonds of plot to give the film a plausible semblance of life. I first took note of O’Brian’s assertive vigor in the wan Marvel contrivance “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (2023), where she was one of the few authentic elements. And though the part of Jackie is more of a showcase than a genuine challenge, it’s good to see her given more screen time and a greater variety of situations in which to develop her talent. Stewart, of course, has not lacked for leading roles, but “Love Lies Bleeding” does more than spotlight her distinctive artistry; it suggests aspects of her acting that remain untapped. Her star power is atypical: she doesn’t so much fill the screen, the way most charismatic actors do, as bend it to fit her by a force of will so natural that it hardly looks like any effort at all. That’s why her performances appear as casual as they are intense, why her acting seems nearly like not acting.

With this singular style, Stewart dominates “Love Lies Bleeding.” Glass deploys Stewart’s mode of performance as a familiar element, and, instead of becoming the character, the character becomes Stewart. But there’s another, less seen side to Stewart: her virtuosity. In Pablo Larraín’s film “Spencer” (2021), she incarnated Princess Diana so completely as to render herself nearly unrecognizable. She hasn’t yet had a role that fuses both sides of her talent, the personality and the creativity, the nature and the inventiveness. Ultimately, the true genre of “Love Lies Bleeding” is a Kristen Stewart movie. That genre, too, is one that the director neither expands nor reinvents.