A warning to squeamish viewers: Sophomore director Rose Glass’s queer melodrama Love Lies Bleeding might not be for you.

Glass, who directed the 2019 psychological horror flick Saint Maud, brings a startlingly singular and stylish vision to life. She’s cited David Cronenberg’s Crash and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls as influences for Love Lies Bleeding, and the carnal obsession of those films shines through in her work. The result is a seedy, sexy, high-octane ride that holds its own amongst the erotic thriller canon. Just consider skipping the popcorn if you have a weak stomach.

The film contains grotesque sound effects of rippling sinew, squelchy flesh, squirming larvae, and a character chomping into the exoskeleton of a live insect. It shows virtually every kind of bodily secretion you can think of, including gore, saliva, sweat, feces, urine, and vomit. Fluorescent lighting casts everything in a sallow greenish-yellow light the color of bile, and a palpable layer of scuzz settles over every surface, an anxious, adrenaline-spiked score pumping away in the background all the while.

Kristen Stewart plays Lou, a chain-smoking dirtbag dyke and gym manager who splits her time between unclogging toilets, fending off the unwanted advances of her overzealous admirer Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), worrying about her sister Beth (Jena Malone), reheating frozen dinners in a drab apartment, and masturbating on a faded couch in full view of her cat. When she meets ambitious muscle mommy Jackie (Katy O’Brian), who’s passing through town on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas, the star-crossed sapphic lovers immediately fall into a spiral of toxic U-haul infatuation. 

Before long, Jackie is shacking up with Lou, who dutifully prepares her egg white omelets, licks protein shake off her sculpted collarbones, and gets her hooked on illicit steroid injections. Coincidentally, Jackie also finds work as a waitress at Lou’s criminal kingpin father Lou Sr.’s (Ed Harris) gun range, much to Lou’s chagrin. When Beth’s abusive, rat-tailed creep of a husband (Dave Franco) beats her to a pulp, a series of gut-wrenching events is set in motion, and Lou and Jackie find themselves on the lam.

Katy O’Brian (left) and Kristen Stewart (right) in "Love Lies Bleeding" photo courtesy of a24

Katy O’Brian, who had to audition six times for her role as Jackie, delivers a breakout performance. Her evolution from spunky, squeaky-clean ingénue to ruthless roid rager who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals is fascinating to watch. At the beginning, she’s a breath of fresh air, standing out from her bleak surroundings in a candy-colored windbreaker. It’s not difficult to see why Lou falls so hard for her. Jackie fantasizes about bootstrapping herself into a self-made star and moving to California to be a trainer. When Lou Sr. interrogates her on why she doesn’t like guns, she announces cheerfully: “Anyone can feel strong hidin’ behind a piece of metal. I prefer to know my own strength.”

But the narrative reveals the insidious side of this plucky determination. Signs in the gym spell out ominous motivational mottos: “Only Losers Quit,” “No Pain No Gain,” “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body,” “Hard Work Pays Off,” “Destiny Is a Decision,” “The Body Achieves What the Mind Believes.”

An air of doom presides over the film, which often resembles a Greek tragedy punctuated by moments of surreal deus ex machina and darkly comic relief. (A gag where Lou stops herself from bumming a cigarette off of a corpse comes to mind.) A starry sky looms over our two antiheroes as they struggle to escape their fates.

Love Lies Bleeding will be widely released to theaters in Seattle Thurs March 14.