After making her debut with the critically acclaimed horror-thriller Saint Maud (2019), British director Rose Glass turns her attention to the terrors of passion in Love Lies Bleeding. Glass’s movie is a pulpy affair, oozing with transgressive queerness, foreboding, and ultimately unwiedly impulses.

Events are set in 1989 in a mythical small town in America, the kind of place where hope comes to die and freedom commands a high price. Bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O’Brian) is the bright bulb that lights up the grim gym where Lou (Kristen Stewart) works. For Lou, Jackie’s company is a vast improvement on cleaning toilets and tolerating the gratingly simpering Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov).

Lou and Jackie fall headlong for each other, ignoring the warning signs that cling to Lou’s unkempt hairdo or Jackie’s kinky curls. Jackie, who wants to compete in a bodybuilding competition, has the urgent air of the aspirant. Despite her concave shoulders and seeming lack of ambition, Lou is no slouch. A crime locks the mutually smitten women into a chokehold from which they struggle to emerge.

The 104-minute film gives the feeling of walking on a carpet drenched in blood, guts and other unidentifiable elements. The effects of this experience are hard to wash off, and are not always perversely pleasurable.

The nightmarish quality is completed by Ed Harris, who plays Lou’s enigmatic father. Sometimes resembling German actor Klaus Kinski, Harris is remarkably subtle as the vampiric conductor of an orchestra of gradually unfolding mayhem.

The cheap paperback-worthy plotting is punctuated by sudden and sharp shocks of vividly filmed assaults on the viscera. Glass unleashes febrile imagery (by Ben Fordesman), propulsive editing (by Mark Towns) and jarring music (by Pop Will Eat Itself vocalist Clint Mansell) onto a narrative that is the sharpest in its quieter, more intimate moments.

The crime, which soon expands into the plural, is unworthy of the attention it gets. The bouts of violence come off as gratuitous, and are easily trumped by the despair that shrouds the lovers. Several scenes, some of them deliberately ugly, are designed to jolt, but the longing that marks the central romance is what lingers.

Jackie’s journey especially has a surreal quality that results in some terrific displays of her sad-sack ambition as well as all-consuming passion for Lou. While Kristen Stewart is very good as Lou, martial arts practitioner Katy O’Brian embodies the film’s manic, going-all-out-for-broke and unsustainable embrace of derangement.

Love Lies Bleeding (2024).