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'Love Lies Bleeding' is a pulpy noir that delivers all the thrills

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new thriller "Love Lies Bleeding," Kristen Stewart plays a gym manager who falls for a woman bodybuilder and gets involved in murder. The movie, which opens this week, was directed and co-written by British filmmaker Rose Glass, who previously made the acclaimed horror film "Saint Maud." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that "Love Lies Bleeding" offers a whole lot of movie for your money.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: One of the best things about film noir is the pulp poetry of its titles. "The Big Sleep," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Touch Of Evil," "Build My Gallows High" - they conjure a world of neon-seared bars and lost highways in which passions run wild beneath the shadow of doom. You get just such a world in "Love Lies Bleeding," a deliriously enjoyable crime picture by the young British filmmaker Rose Glass. Although it shares its title with the song by Elton John, who feels more Yellow Brick Road than "Mean Streets," this neo-noir delivers the pulpy thrills we want from something called "Love Lies Bleeding." You get hot sex, drug abuse, black comedy, revenge killing and a kick-ass heroine to battle its crazy-ass villain. This is not a movie you'll accuse of holding back.

Kristen Stewart stars as Lou, the solitary manager of a bodybuilders gym in a small New Mexico town in the 1980s, back before cellphones and security cameras began ruining movies' suspense. It's owned by her gun-running father, Lou Sr., played by Ed Harris in a hilarious wig that makes him look like the Crypt Keeper. She hates both him and the town but stays around to help protect her sister, played by Jena Malone, from the skeevy husband - that's Dave Franco - who physically abuses her. Lou is stuck until, as so often happens, a stranger rides into town. That's Jackie, played by Katie O'Brien, who has a sweet smile, a swole physique and a big dream. She's headed to Las Vegas to enter and win a bodybuilding contest. Lou is smitten, so smitten that she offers Jackie free steroids. The two wind up in bed and love. Alas, Jackie can get a bit wild, especially once the roids start kicking in. Not surprisingly, given the macho world they inhabit, things quickly go south. They get themselves involved in a murder and spend the rest of the movie hoping to outwit everyone from Lou's bullying dad to snooping FBI agents, to a dopey but canny young woman played by Anna Baryshnikov, who tries to use secret information to make a play for Lou. Through it all, Jackie keeps planning her trip to Vegas for the contest. Here, early on, Lou asks Jackie about her past in Oklahoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE LIES BLEEDING")

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Lou) Is that why you left home - Oklahomans not into muscle chicks?

KATY O'BRIAN: (As Jackie) Yeah, not so much (laughter). The place I'm from, everyone's a farmer, goes to church twice a week, that kind of thing.

STEWART: (As Lou) So how does an Oklahoma farm girl get into bodybuilding?

O'BRIAN: (As Jackie) My folks adopted me when I was 13. And I was a fat kid, so I kind of got bullied a lot. It taught me to fight back.

STEWART: (As Lou) So you're going to win this competition, and then what?

O'BRIAN: (As Jackie) I don't know. I didn't think that far ahead yet.

STEWART: (As Lou) Yeah, I think I know that one.

POWERS: Although "Love Lies Bleeding" was a hit when it premiered at Sundance in January, a few critics grumbled that the plot wasn't original. In a sense, this claim is true - few things are new under the noir sun - yet it also misses the point. You see; Glass likes to take familiar genre material and give it a psychosexual twirl. Her debut feature, "Saint Maud," was a claustrophobic horror story steeped in religious mania. Here she takes the staples of ultra-male pictures - a mysterious drifter, nasty bloodshed, snippets of softcore nudity - and then stirs in an ardent lesbian love story that gives it all a different coloration and flavor. One finds hints of everything from David Lynch to "The Incredible Hulk" to "Thelma And Louise," which it both nods to and updates.

The movie could have exploded if Glass hadn't directed it with such skill and headlong conviction. She knows how to sell a joke. There's a great gag with an insect. How to make us feel the weirdly beautiful desolation of the dusty little town, how to capture Lou and Jackie's giddy discovery of their shared sexual delight. She's helped by a terrific cast, most of whom bring verve to unlikable characters. Even as O'Brian bursts with vitality as Jackie, whose sculpted triangle of a torso is something to behold, the movie is anchored emotionally by Stewart, an exceedingly talented actor with a fascinating persona.

Where someone like Meryl Streep always seems confident, even when making "Sophie's Choice," Stewart may be the only movie star in history who specializes in uneasiness, awkwardness, holding back. She often appears to be slightly violated by the presence of other people, as well as by the camera. It's a treat when the reclusive Lou opens up in Jackie's presence and begins to blossom with joy. Of course, joy is precarious in any movie called "Love Lies Bleeding." Glass fills her story with examples of how love - familial love, marital love, puppy love, sexual love - can become a painful and destructive force. The question isn't simply whether Lou and Jackie will survive the dangerous world they enter, but whether their love will be left there bleeding or live to rise again.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new film "Love Lies Bleeding," starring Kristen Stewart. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with RuPaul, creator and host of "RuPaul's Drag Race," or New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about Joe Biden's last campaign, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART HODES' "CAKE WALKIN' BABIES FROM HOME")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART HODES' "CAKE WALKIN' BABIES FROM HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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