Review | ‘Love Lies Bleeding’: Kristen Stewart in a radically ripped romance

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StarSolidStarSolidStarSolidStarHalf(3.5 stars)

It is 1989 New Mexico in Rose Glass’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” and it is also not. Despite the radio reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall and some very “Just Say No”-era drug busts, this is a mythic 1980s and a mythic USA, peopled by venal desperados pulled from the mildewed pages of a 1950s Jim Thompson novel.

Be glad of the distance that fantasy bestows. You’re in less danger from flying shrapnel, beads of sweat and bone shards when the movie explodes into a grisly delirium of female rage and romance in which queerness is neither a liability nor a simple fact of life that deserves respect: It’s a goddamn superpower.

Belonging perfectly amid all this Rottweiler Americana — gun clubs, chain-link fences and neon signs that fizz like lightning bugs — there’s Kristen Stewart in a skeevy mullet and a sleeveless tee playing gym manager Lou. Lou’s father is a shady local kingpin (Ed Harris) also called Lou, and that he named his now-estranged daughter after himself tells you all you need to know about him. Well, that, his beetle fixation and his own apocalyptic hairdo that makes him look, in some of inspired cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s more lurid lighting setups, like a demon gracing the cover of a heavy metal album.

Since she left her dubious past behind — dumping it, along with many of Lou Sr.’s secrets, in a deep, distinctly yonic canyon in the desert — Lou’s life is pretty anemic. She unclogs toilets and avoids the pestering of lovelorn Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), a former hookup who is femme and cute until her smile reveals her slyness and her meth-stained teeth. Lou’s excuse, and it’s only sometimes a lie, is that she’s looking after her sister Beth (Jena Malone), the bottle-blond beaten wife of JJ (Dave Franco), a piece of work so nasty it’s hard to imagine a fate dire enough for him. So Glass imagines one for us, and in terms of graphic gore, the head-stomping scene in “American History X” and the corpse-splitting moment in “Bone Tomahawk” need to scooch over on the podium.

But JJ is first indirectly responsible for the one moment of grace that Lou’s grimy existence has so far yielded, when, in return for a quick, mechanical tryst in his car, he gets drifter Jackie (Katy O’Brian) a job at the shooting range. Jackie is a competitive bodybuilder, and from the moment she brings her rippling, sweat-slicked torso into the gym, Lou is entranced. They fall in crazy, scuzzy love under the pulsating synths of Clint Mansell’s score.

It is gratifying to see lesbian attraction portrayed as intensely physical: not a delicate inclination made of sighs and pressed flowers, but a messy, carnal affliction that is covetous and ravenous and occasionally squelchy. But the film’s progressiveness runs deeper: Each time Lou looks at Jackie, the unbridled animal lust on a heavy-breathing Stewart’s face is its own radical essay on female desire as rarely depicted.

O’Brian’s fantastic — and eventually phantasmagoric — physique shatters accepted ideals of femininity and is willfully fetishized, especially when jacked up on steroids, veins popping and muscles swelling like post-spinach Popeye. And there are pyrotechnics and sucked toes and a jaw beaten clean off a skull. But the most subversive moment in this gorgeously pulpy mashup of mood and mullet and black, black humor might just be that close-up of a never-better Kristen Stewart, looking at something like it’s beautiful to her, and letting the sheer want of it write itself across her face, the way they say doomed-lover destinies are written in the stars.

R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive, highly imaginative, graphic violence; gore; crude language; and drug taking, as well as copious bodily fluids and joyously gay sex acts. 104 minutes.

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