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Kristen Stewart is splattered with the blood of the person lying in front of her in "Love Lies Bleeding." Courtesy Film4 Productions

Shortly after I reviewed Saint Maud, I heard that its writer-director, Rose Glass, was working on a film with Kristen Stewart. Without knowing anything about the plot, I thought, “Where do I get in line for that one?” Now, a little over three years later, that film is here and it’s a lesbian crime thriller called Love Lies Bleeding, one that hits you in the face like the smell of an untended locker room, with its grime, sweat, and blood (menstrual and otherwise). The jolt this movie delivers reminds of just how defanged most crime thrillers in our multiplexes are, but there are more accomplishments in store.

The story is set in 1989 in the New Mexico desert, where Lou Langston (Stewart) manages a gym that’s grungy enough to make you want a tetanus shot before going in. It’s also where she sees Jackie (Katy O’Brian), an itinerant bodybuilder who’s passing through town on her way to a competition in Las Vegas. They fall into bed together, but when Lou’s scumbag brother-in-law (Dave Franco) beats her sister (Jena Malone) badly enough to put her in a coma, it’s Jackie who breaks into his house and kills the absolute crap out of him. She might act more circumspectly if she knew that the FBI is sniffing around Lou, though the feds are less interested in the steroids that Lou is using and dealing and more in her crime-boss father (Ed Harris), who’s illegally running guns south of the border. Good thing Lou knows how to dispose of a dead body, because it’s not the last time her skill will be called on.

If you saw Saint Maud, you know that Glass lives in the place where kitchen-sink realism meets nightmare hallucinations, and she captures the dry heat of New Mexico the way she got the cold damp of the English shore in her previous film. She inserts a number of shots of Jack’s muscles bulging like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk, and I’m not enamored with the way that pays off — the climax makes sense on a metaphorical level, but it’s unavoidably silly in its appearance. Better stuff comes in the gory violence in both the film’s reality and unreality. The murders are splattery, and you won’t be able to unsee the sequence when Jack imagines vomiting up Lou whole at the bodybuilding contest. The shootout in Lou’s apartment is ingeniously staged, too, as Lou looks at her TV screen and spots the reflection of the crooked cop (David DeLao) whom her dad has sent to kill her.

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O’Brian has acted on The Walking Dead and The Mandalorian, and where most films would cast some skinny actress and have her pack on 20 pounds of muscle for the part, this one casts someone who actually looks like a woman who could detach a man’s lower jaw from his face with her bare hands. The chemistry between the two leads is supposed to be instant and hot, and these actresses do have that. (I have one word to describe the sex scenes between them, and that word is “fisting.”) We’ve seen Stewart play these jittery, nervous, self-lacerating types before, but under Glass’ direction she somehow turns it up so that she infuses the entire film with her frazzled energy.

Like a 15-pound free weight to the back of the head, the irony strikes me that even though the setup is similar to Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls, this movie is far more like a Coen brothers movie than that one. Every time anybody makes a plan, somebody comes along and fouls it up, like when Jackie’s insistence on attending the competition in Vegas results in additional bloodshed despite Lou warning her about how leaving town will make her look. Lou’s method of body disposal is meant to call attention to itself, but while it does draw law enforcement to the scene like she wants, it also signals to her dad that she’s involved. Separately, both women are forced into sex and murder that they’d rather not take part in. Against this backdrop (and the time period and Lou’s dad trying to drive a wedge between them), the romance seems more urgent. This is one romantic film that successfully shakes you by the lapels.

Some have compared this movie with Thelma & Louise, but I think the better comparison might be Pulp Fiction, whose down-at-the-heel aesthetic clashed with the other movies of 1994 the way Love Lies Bleeding jars with the other multiplex fare today and makes it look timid by comparison. If Rose Glass’ film has neither the same easy mythological resonance of Ridley Scott’s epic nor the lowbrow hilarity of Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, it does have a phantasmagoric dimension that distinguishes it from even that august company. It’s thoroughly disreputable. I want more.

Love Lies Bleeding
Starring Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian. Directed by Rose Glass. Written by Rose Glass and Weronika Tofilska. Rated R.

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