‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Review: Kristen Stewart, Crazy (and Scary) in Love

Watching Kristen Stewart is always an adventure. A performer who makes good movies better and dreary movies tolerable, she has a restlessness that has made her one of the more interesting attractions in American film. She has a gift for making a character’s inner life transparently readable, and while she can be subtle and withholding, it is her fascinatingly unquiet presence that draws you in, an itchy intensity that can keep her (and you) on edge. Pauline Kael wrote that Jane Fonda’s “motor runs a little fast” — so does Stewart’s.

In her latest vehicle, “Love Lies Bleeding,” a neo-noir in a violent and winkingly nasty key, Stewart plays Lou, short for Louise, a small-town loner somewhere in New Mexico, yearning to escape a classic dead end. If this were a 1940s noir, Lou would be fixing jalopies in a dingy garage while waiting for a dame to stroll in to change his fate. That’s more or less what happens here, except that it’s the ’80s, and Lou is a woman who works in a gym where she’s wasting away, unclogging toilets and slipping steroids to bulked-up juicers. Then, a beautiful stranger walks into the gym and changes her life, as sirens sometimes do in movies.

The stranger, Jackie (a good, physically imposing Katy O. Brian), immediately catches Lou’s eye. It’s destiny, Old Hollywood style, and it lights the movie up and sets it on its incendiary way. What happens is hot, yummy stuff, but romances like these need something to get in their way, whether it’s a bag of loot, a jealous ex or just a contrivance. This movie obliges with violence, lots of guns, spooky flashbacks and a classic villain, played by a fantastic Ed Harris with a sneer and an epically terrible wig. There’s a lot of extravagantly and comically bad hair in “Love Lies Bleeding,” along with equally rotten teeth and souls.

It’s a good guess that the director Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) has read James M. Cain or seen some of the films made from his hard-boiled books; she may have thumbed through a few Jim Thompson novels, too. (Glass wrote the script with Weronika Tofilska.) “Love Lies Bleeding” isn’t on par with Cain or Thompson, and overselling a comparison would be silly. Even so, when Jackie first walks into the gym, the world-altering effect she has on Lou recalls the moment when the drifter in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” meets his kismet: “Then I saw her,” he says, “her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”

Lou and Jackie’s don’t connect until after the gym closes and the darkness is wrapping them in its embrace. Outside, they meet and greet, sizing each other up with hungry eyes and faint smiles. First, though, they need to deal with some narrative interruptus. One of the gym rats hits on Jackie after the gym closes, but when he grabs at her, she punches him, hard. He hits her right back in an exchange that, among other things, announces the movie’s bad-ass attitude as well as Jackie’s fearlessness, her recklessness and rage. It also effectively serves as violent foreplay to Lou and Jackie’s progressively unhinged and dangerous romance.

They fall into bed quickly, and the story soon heats up, too. A bodybuilder en route to a contest in Vegas, Jackie has drifted into town, as mysterious types tend to do, where she soon lands a job to earn some cash. She crashes with Lou, who — after a steamy night and a cozy morning-after breakfast — is understandably eager for Jackie to stick around. Yet Lou also remains super-jumpy and wary, like someone permanently looking over her shoulder, and Stewart gives the character a tremulous energy that vibrates in her every look, gesture and head bob. At times, you can almost see the anxiety spreading under her skin like an electric current.

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