Blood & Muscle – Love Lies Bleeding (2024)

Hey everyone! I planned to get back into reviews at the start of this year but, as I’m sure you can tell, that didn’t happen. I haven’t been able to keep up with the Release Radar over the last two months either and I’ve still got a few more titles to cross off the list before I get to the Sheist Film Awards which also had to be delayed due to ongoing family issues. That said, now that the Oscars are in the rearview, I am going to make a concerted effort to get back to the things that made you decide to check out this site in the first place. And it’s especially nice to have a film like Love Lies Bleeding giving me that motivational nudge.

With that in mind, it is never my goal to ruin a movie for someone who hasn’t seen it. So, I try to be as discreet as possible but it’s also not worth my time to write about a movie in the shackles of the “spoiler-free-review” space. I don’t mean to be too harsh or reductive about it because there was a time when I thought that was how I needed to approach things. I get it. But I don’t want to do that. If I take the time to read a film review or if someone takes the time to read mine, I want that experience to be felt. For better or for worse. Maybe that’s corny, but I want to know how a movie made someone feel. What it made them think about. What ideas did they get from it? Did it bring up any memories? That’s what I’m interested in so that’s how I aim to share my own experience. To those familiar with my writing, you know I exercise caution, but I want to reiterate my intentions for anyone new here as we proceed. With this understanding, let’s continue.

Romance isn’t always glamorous. And that tone is set, unapologetically, at the start. You can almost smell the shit, sweat, and cigarette smoke wafting off the screen from the roadside gym set against the backdrop of late-80s New Mexico.

That is where we meet Lou (Kristen Stewart)…depressed, lonely, and stuck in a dead-end existence, laminating gym memberships for patrons she’d just as soon tell to fuck off. A powerful sense of obligation anchors her quiet, guilt-ridden life to her sister who’s the victim of repeated domestic violence. It is very human and familiar to feel trapped or duty-bound. And that’s perhaps her defining characteristic. But her notions of fielty are forced into competition when a drifter, who has hitchhiked their way from Montana in preparation for a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas, walks through her gym doors.

I loved that director Rose Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska went in heavy on the character juxtaposition because when we first meet the other half of our lead equation, Jackie (Katy O’Brian), she’s fucking a mullet-rocking scumbag in the front seat of his Camaro in the hopes of securing employment. It’s not until she steps out of the car that we get a glimpse of her physical prowess. And while we had already seen Lou retreat to her unkempt above-garage-apartment, where she masturbates on the couch as her cat eats the unfinished portion of her microwaved dinner, Jackie spends her night under a freeway overpass. However, determined and motivated, she begins the next morning with a confident concrete workout.

The characters couldn’t be more dissimilar before their paths are intertwined but seizing love, wherever you can find it, no matter how unlikely, is a key element of the thematic intent of this sharp romantic thriller. Glass and Tofilska crafted a powerful sense of fate for these characters…one that evokes classic tales of star-crossed lovers from literary lore. There is a visceral, timeless quality to those classics and this too grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go.

I didn’t go into the film with any expectations, but I was jiving with all the creative decisions Rose Glass made in her sophomore feature film. While I wasn’t as enthralled as many with her highly touted debut, the religious horror film Saint Maud, it showcased loads of potential. So, it was great to see Glass harness the tension and intensity she displayed and evolve those ideas with her introspective style into a more fluid and comprehensive story.

Her growth as a filmmaker is easy to see in things like the scope and creative style of Love Lies Bleeding, whether it’s having a character hulk out on steroids, leaning into the robust color of the 80s, or weaving several narratives into a collision course. However, I appreciate that this effort exists as a more colorful and positive mirror for its predecessor. It maintains all the dark, near-torturous, personal nature of Maud but uses that to create hope forged in fire, rather than as a tool of destruction. I don’t know if there was a personal shift in Glass’ ideology as a filmmaker but, given the violent nature of this film, hope has value.

Before I move on, I want to pay respect to Kirsten Stewart. She has come a long way since Twilight and (for the most part) has taken on interesting and challenging roles. Lou is no different, and she plays the character with strength and resolve despite being the frail, chain-smoking one in an environment of macho weightlifters. That’s due, in part, to the strength of the script but Stewart never comes across as weak in her performance, and getting to exist in her own space has given her a captivating onscreen confidence.

If Stewart is the chassis Katy O’Brian is the engine that makes this movie go. It may be anecdotal, but I read she had to audition for the film six times. It’s that kind of sticktoitiveness that Jackie needed. When you think of this character who had to leave their home, hitchhike across the country, and trade sex for favors with the sole intention of competing in a niche industry…that takes persistence. O’Brian brings a passion and exuberance to the role that’s a great bit of ballast to Stewart’s brooding reclusive nature, and the two of them have marvelous chemistry on screen together.

You can always tell when a director has buzz by the types of names you see attached to a project. And beyond Stewart and O’Brian splitting lead duties, we are treated to one of the most villainous performances of Ed Harris’ career as Lou’s unsavory bastard father. He’s just so gross but that never stops him from commanding every scene he’s in. As a bonus, he is flanked by Dave Franco and Jena Malone in supporting roles. Plus, there’s even a cameo by ex-UFC fighter Keith Jardine!

Darren Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator, composer Clint Mansell, lent his stylings to this project as well and delivered an incredibly effective and unsettling original score. Aronofsky is known for his films’ dark intensity so, Mansell was a great addition to this film. I’m a fan of scores that subtly amplify the narrative on screen and this was sharp and exacting. I hoped to listen to it while writing this but the soundtrack won’t be released until March 15th, 2024.

Speaking of music, I chose the title for this review based on a song by the artist Lissie who I have been listening to for many years. Her song Blood & Muscle, particularly the chorus, off her album “Carving Canyons” has always resonated with me and I listened to it quite a bit leading up to my wedding. But that sentiment is powerful and I saw it reflected in this film.

And I won’t give up
I won’t give up

I want a love that’s made of blood and muscle
I want a love that’s brave, can take my tears
I wanna laugh at the dark like I’m not scared of nothing
I wanna love that’s made of blood and muscle

– Lissie, Blood & Muscle

My default position is always encouraging people to see movies themselves and have them arrive at their own conclusions. That isn’t going to change. And while I don’t necessarily want to over-hype this movie, all of the creative choices worked for me. I’ve seen it described as pulpy and maybe it is but that’s a bit of an oversimplification. I prefer to liken it to something like a lesbian version of No Country For Old Men…with a bit more pulp. I friggin’ loved it!

Recommendation: Tense. Passionate. Electric. And wonderfully unhinged! This is my favorite film of the 2024 cinematic year, and this review coincides with its national expansion.

Thanks for reading! Word of mouth is still the best way to help. So, if you enjoy what I’m doing, please tell somebody. And if you have a comment, I’d love to hear it! Liking, subscribing, and sharing go a long way too. As usual, be well, be safe, and have fun no matter how you get your movies!