Monday, July 22, 2024

“Love Lies Bleeding,” the delightfully audacious lesbian crime noir from Rose Glass, may not be a road movie per se, but it sure feels like one. It’s everything “Drive-Away Dolls” wanted to be and more: edgy, free of tropes and seared tight by the kind of angry authenticity that imbued “Titane” (2019), “Bound” (1994) or anything Gregg Araki ever lambasted us with in the 1990s.

The setting’s a podunk New Mexico town in the mid-1980s – boxy cars, big hair and no cellphones – where Lou (Kristen Stewart) bides her time toiling at a no-frills pump-and-grunt gym, where unclogging the toilet is job No. 1. (And this loo is not like the sleek pieces of pristine public art tended to in Wim Wenders’ well received “Perfect Days.”) No, this is like a Fenway men’s room at its odorous worst, and the clientele are all juiced-up meatheads, though Lou feels at home among them, like one of those small fish that swims calmly among sharks and cleans their gills. It probably helps that she has a side hustle shilling steroids.

Lou lives a modest existence. Her flat is classic Allston: worn sofa, tatty rug and clothes strewn everywhere. Her life feels flat too. There is no light in it. Even her one passing love interest, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail), a vapid young woman with a beaming smile and nothing to say even though she’s always talking, feels done and over with. Clearly something has to give, and we get the first whiff of what’s going on under the covers when two FBI agents posing as old family friends come by to inquire about Lou’s father and mother. It’s here we learn Lou is somewhat estranged from her father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris, rocking a Brian Eno ’70s do), who owns the gym, a gun range and most everything (and everyone) else in the town, but remains close to her sister Beth (an unrecognizable Jena Malone in a blonde bob) who has a tumultuous home life with her husband J.J. (Dave Franco), a rat-tailed scum who works at the firing range.

Tangled webs and criminal pasts get more tangled when Jackie (a super-jacked Katy O’Brien) drifts into town and Lou’s gym, but not before an encounter with J.J. Jackie’s a transient soul working-out her way across America en route to a bodybuilding contest in Las Vegas. She’s got big dreams and even bigger pecs. It’s love at first pump, or something like that. After getting cornered by two sneering lunkheads, Jackie and Lou fall into bed. Souls get bared, love springs and Jackie moves in (she had been sleeping under a bridge). For much-needed cash, she takes up a job waitressing at Lou Sr.’s shooting range, which doesn’t sit too well with Lou.

Glass, who made audiences take notice with “Saint Maude” (2019), an immersive, eerily tense ambient piece, strikes a dutiful balance between pulp punchiness and grrl power anthem with a peppering of gonzo genre-stretching flourishes. One of those goes-to-11 touches is Jackie juicing to the point of Hulk-like ’roid rages and some outré, almost Lynchian veers into alter reality. The chemistry between Lou and Jackie carries the film atop its broad, sculpted shoulders, driven by the kind of passion and injustice that made “Thelma & Louise” (1991) and “Bound” (1996) such indelible fist-in-the-air fuck-the-patriarchy staples. The cinematography by Ben Fordesman recasts the neon-basked Southwest in a gritty neo-noir light that deepens the film’s sense of time, place and genre, but the key here is Stewart, whose underreactive restraint is the film’s hook. Jackie’s the hammer. The two together are an intoxicating tandem, vulnerable yet steeled as they try to make it to tomorrow and their way out.

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.