Out of all the small gyms in New Mexico, she had to come into mine. The first shots of Rose Glass’s second full-length feature, Love Lies Bleeding, start with an animalistic tone as slow-motion shots track groups of people going through various workouts. The sweat, muscles flexing, and raw energy almost take you by the hand and never let go. There’s a particular sheen cinematographer Ben Fordesman goes for that acts as another character within itself. If there is one circular theme that encompasses this film, it’s love. Unabashed queer love, physical love, toxic love, love to do wrong, and the love to be of service to something other than yourself are many ways this entertaining tangled web of a story sets off. Lou (Kristen Stewart) is the gym manager and has almost melted into the small-town Americana black hole of it all. When we first meet her, she does a nasty bit of janitorial work and makes enough to get by in a cozy place.

But her need to lay low is holding a couple of pending explosions at bay. For one, Lou is estranged from her crime lord and gun-range-owning father, Lou Sr (Ed Harris), who isn’t afraid to kill off anybody who opposes him. There’s also the matter of her big sister Beth (Jena Malone), locked in an abusive marriage with her cringy-worthy husband JJ (Dave Franco). If that wasn’t enough, FBI agents have been regularly rolling into town and grilling Lou on the whereabouts of her mother and her disappearance 12 years ago. The small town is more like a coffin for any life ambitions, and Lou is barely getting by. That’s until one day, a woman named Jackie (Katy O’Brian) walks into the gym in all of her fantastic physique glory.

Whereas Lou might crave another life and a way out, Jackie is just stopping through. At night, she sleeps under the bridge of an underpass with an ambitious goal in mind — training to be in peak condition to compete in a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. When Lou and Jackie meet, sparks fly, and it’s every bit physical as it is a desired need for both to escape from one another. After they both hook up for the first time, Lou agrees to let Jackie stay with her. From there, pasts, presents, and futures collide into a furious mixture of sex, desire, gore, jealousy, and a feverish need to cover their steps. Both O’Brian and Stewart are great together as they are in scenes apart. While Jackie is imposing, O’Brian gives her an undercurrent of vulnerability that meshes with how Stewart’s Lou sometimes takes the lead. Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska set the standard for how power is displayed throughout Loves Lies Bleeding. While Jackie is a force of her own, there’s something that feels inevitable about the overreaching hand of Lou Sr. It’s not only his crazy hairstyle and love for insects, but it’s the fact that he will do anything and use anyone to keep his empire going.

It just so happens Lou was given a steady supply of steroids by some guys at her gym. At first, Jackie is reluctant to take them, but she indulges and increases the dosages as the competition draws near. She feels terrific, and it’s indicative of the Incredible Hulk-like imagery Glass imparts throughout the film in random instances of pleasure. However, as more of the drugs get into her system, the film takes on an unbelievable quality of swaying into what’s real and what’s purely fiction. Much like the fantastical religious visions in Saint Maud, Rose uses this tool Paired with the second half of the narrative upping the stakes after some murderous crimes are committed, you have a pretty exciting and nerve-wracking film overall. Loves Lies Bleeding is as gory as it is funny at times. There is no spared expense for how extremely practical and swift some of the kills are. You will enjoy a subplot with Lou and a local town admirer, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) before her presence in this story becomes complicated.

How far are you willing to go outside of your moral comfort zone to ensure the person you love is safe? Love Lies Bleeding asks this question of its characters in a variety of ways that harken back to films like True Romance, Thelma, and Louise with a little bit of the body horror contortions of David Cronenberg. It disregards any need to pull back; it only pushes further into wilder scenarios and territory right before the credits roll. This is love, this is pain, and this is madness.

Photo Credit: A24