Love Lies Bleeding is Kristen Stewarts highlight

“Love Lies Bleeding” is Kristen Stewart’s highlight

Muscles ripple, veins burst, and electronic music throbs in “Love Lies Bleeding,” a billowing, hyper-sexy neo-noir drenched in sweat, blood, and insect guts.

If the latter seems a little less expected, thanks to the bug-eating Ed Harris, this moment is far from the only unconventional provocation in Rose Glass' film, a pulpy, fairytale lesbian crime thriller in which bodies, large and small, are ravaged under the starry desert sky .

Not everything works. Heavy doses of melodrama and eye-popping surrealism blunt the lurid magic of “Love Lies Bleeding.” But this comes tantalizingly close to the idealized version of a Kristen Stewart film. Stewart has been one of the most electrifying stars in years. But “Love Lies Bleeding,” in which she plays a cynical gym worker named Lou who falls in love with a bodybuilding drifter, Jackie (Katy O'Brian), offers Stewart a vivid noir sandbox in which to showcase all her talent to obsession, desire and anger find their worst expression yet.

Glass, the British filmmaker whose 2019 horror film “Saint Maud” was an exciting debut, opens “Love Lies Bleeding” on a slightly magical note, gazing at the stars. The camera slowly pans to a warehouse in New Mexico, where music is blaring and people are streaming in. What kind of spooky night cave could this be? For a moment, it's disappointing to learn that it's just a gym full of men and women pushing themselves to exhaustion with machines and dumbbells. There are signs around them with slogans like “Only losers give up.”

The urge to make yourself bigger – with weights, drugs, guns, power or perhaps love – resonates throughout “Love Lies Bleeding.” More than once, Glass will linger on swelling muscles, almost Hulk-like, although these expansions have nothing to do with the immensity that Lou and Jackie ultimately find together.

Poisons are also lurking everywhere. For the trainees, weakness is one of them. Lou is a smoker but is trying to quit. Jackie is addicted to a bodybuilder fantasy and a self-realization craze. And then there's the nastiness of the local shooting range, where Lou Sr. (Harris) presides over a corrupt arms trafficking empire from behind a desk surrounded by creepy crawlies. The satire of “Love Lies Bleeding” isn’t shy. A billboard reads: “Dream, next exit.”

At the shooting range, Jackie gets a job after meeting a sleazy, mullet-wearing lackey named JJ (Dave Franco) in his car. “That was magical,” he says after something that clearly wasn’t. The real magic will come later in “Love Lies Bleeding,” but not for JJ, whose abuse toward his wife and Lou's sister Beth (Jena Malone) leads to a bloody series of events that reluctantly brings Lou into an ever closer relationship with the estranged Father brings them upset, Lou Sr.

In a sense, all of this springs from the love that blossoms between Lou and Jackie. It starts with a steroid injection and a kiss and quickly becomes passionate and protective. Their increasingly close bond drives them to violent extremes. Being in love means being ruthless – towards former lovers (Anna Baryshnikov plays one of Lou's abandoned mistresses) and family alike.

Jackie's roid-charged disorder also plays a role, making “Love Lies Bleeding” an interesting addition to Jonathan Majors' unreleased bodybuilder film “Magazine Dreams,” not to mention “The Iron Claw,” another beefy A24 film about family decay and Muscle building.

Like that film, “Love Lies Bleeding” is set in the 1980s, although it seems rather dated. As things spin in Glass and Weronika Tofilska's script, the film keeps the grisly events in perspective, at times taking the perspective of Jackie's drug delirium, such as when she flees to Las Vegas to compete in a bodybuilding competition, or slips closer approaches Lou Sr. as he coolly pulls the strings.

But it will be dangerous to break away from Stewart. Love Lies Bleeding loses some of its momentum every time she's not on screen. However, no one would want anything less from Harris after “Love Lies Bleeding.” As he gets older he seems to be getting better and better, his voice sounds more and more sonorous. As clownish as he is portrayed in the film – with a bald head and long hair down to his shoulders – he firmly justifies a film that resorts to some unnecessary, outrageous flourishes. (I fear this is an increasingly common effect of today's struggling film world – the urge to overcompensate with a hopeful quirk.)

But neo-noirs made with this level of style deserve some leeway to go all out. As the sign says, “Only losers give up.”

“Loves Lies Bleeding,” an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for violence and graphic images, sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use. Running time: 104 minutes. Three out of four stars.