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Jacked Up

There are two kinds of crime movies that I’m an absolute sucker for. The first are the ones about professionals. With movies like The Town, Thief, and The Driver, we’re introduced to crooks who live and work by a code. They consider the situations they’re walking into, the kinds of people they’re likely to deal with, and frequently have plans within plans. More importantly, they operate on a base level of competency. If you need someone to successfully rob a bank, crack a safe, or successfully evade the police, they can do it.

The second kind of movie hews closer to reality. Most criminals aren’t like the calculating Hannibal Lecter or the disciplined Neil McCauley. Most criminals are dumb as toast. It’s been said that the vast majority of murders are solved within seventy-two hours, and that’s because the vast majority of murderers kill people they know and do so in the heat of the moment. Rather than an elaborate plot to bump someone off, these folks find themselves in a “Whoopsy-doodle, there’s a corpse in my living room and there’s blood all over the walls!” kind of situation.

Are these people genuinely stupid, though? Sometimes, yes. More often, the problem is the line they cross. Murder is a foreign country, and when they stumble into it, they’re utterly ignorant of both the language and the customs. That leads us into Love Lies Bleeding, a skillfully made crime thriller about some seriously unskilled people.

The first time we meet Lou (Kristen Stewart), she’s unclogging a toilet. Lou manages a gym somewhere in New Mexico, the kind of town that most people drive through and that the people who live there want to leave but can’t. That’s the first stroke of bad luck for Lou, and the second is that she’s a lesbian in the late 1980s, a time not exactly known for tolerance. She could settle down with local townie Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). The only problem is that Daisy is somewhat of a dingus. Lou wants more.

She gets what she wants when Jackie (Katy O’Brian) rolls into town. Jackie comes from parts unknown. She has no fixed address, and we see her working out strenuously the morning after having slept under a highway overpass. Jackie’s dream is to enter a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. Her plan is to train in town, then take Vegas by storm.

The plan changes when Jackie and Lou fall for each other. It might be more accurate to say they crash into each other, and before they know it, they’re in love. Lou unhesitatingly supports Jackie, so much so that she fixes Jackie up with a cache of abandoned steroids. With every shot, Jackie feels stronger, more powerful, like she can take on the world. 

Jackie unhesitatingly supports Lou, even after meeting her deranged family. Lou’s Mom vanished a dozen years ago. Not surprising considering Lou’s Dad Lou Sr. (Ed Harris) is the local crime lord. Lou’s beloved sister Beth (Jena Malone) is in an unhappy marriage with local scumbag JJ (Dave Franco). When JJ puts Beth in the hospital, Lou is distraught. Jackie can’t abide the love of her life feeling that kind of pain. She decides to take steps, and once she starts, things get complicated.

In 2019, director Rose Glass had a seriously impressive debut with Saint Maud, a horror movie soaked in religious obsession. Glass hasn’t lost a step with Love Lies Bleeding, and her characters are obsessed with power, escape, and control. The film feels grimy, raw, and real when it’s necessary. Sometimes clinical reality isn’t necessary, such as when we see Jackie’s muscles rippling and growing to a ludicrous degree after a steroid shot. There’s a psychological truth in that moment. Jackie feels unstoppable, and Glass wisely shows us how she feels. 

Glass and her co-screenwriter Weronika Tofilska have a strong understanding of pulpy noir. They realize one of the critical components is that behavior dictates plot, not the other way around. The characters make one choice, then another. Each decision puts them in a tighter spot. A reasonable person might say, “Why don’t Lou and Jackie just leave? Go start a new life?” It’s because people in movies like this aren’t reasonable people. They’re governed by their particular traumas and obsessions, which sometimes gets them out of a jam and sometimes leads them to ruin.

This is one of those casts where the actors choose to be there for the movie, not the payday. As a result, they bring it. I liked Kristen Stewart as Lou, and it’s amusing to me that she’s introduced unclogging a toilet, then spends the rest of the movie cleaning up even worse messes. Her love for Jackie empowers her to be loud, to speak up, but the problem with Lou is that she’s not quite as smart as she thinks she is. Stewart’s a very smart performer, and that allows her to play some entertaining angles. She’s got fiery chemistry with Katy O’Brian. As Jackie, O’Brian does outstanding work. She uses her physique as armor, as a weapon, and as an aphrodisiac. Along with a skilled physical performance, O’Brian effectively sells Jackie’s drive, desperation, and vulnerability. It’s a (Sorry!) muscular performance, and she nearly steals the show. I say “nearly,’ because the scene stealer is the mighty Ed Harris. He plays Lou Sr. as reptilian, patient, and contained, content to let others underestimate him. He’s usually three steps ahead of everyone else, always calculating, and that makes him a truly dangerous villain.

Most of the people in Love Lies Bleeding would rather not be criminals. They’re not master planners, and they won’t be showing up in a Michael Mann film anytime soon. But they’re desperate, and desperate people often make terrible choices. That makes for compelling fare, and Love Lies Bleeding is one hell of a compelling movie.

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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