For her second film since 2019 horror Saint Maud, writer-director Rose Glass challenges genre expectations with a gritty romantic thriller set in the 1980s. Along the way, she draws from her understanding of horror to imbue the film with just a touch of the supernatural.

Love Lies Bleeding tells the story of Lou (Kristen Stewart), a gym owner who hates her life yet refuses to leave out of concern for her sister Beth (Jena Malone), who’s being abused by her sleazy husband J.J. (Dave Franco). Things change when Lou starts a relationship with homeless bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O’Brian). Despite learning early on that Jackie has a short fuse, Lou chooses to give her steroids, initiating Jackie’s evolution into a Hulked-out rage machine who sets the couple on the run from both law enforcement and Lou’s gun smuggling father (Ed Harris).

Many parts of the pursuing plot play out formulaically, but it’s easy to overlook this for the strength of the characters. Lou struggles against her own emotions, her desire to love others pitted against tendencies toward anger and suspicion, particularly when she suspects Jackie of being a mere ‘hobosexual’ who’s using her for a place to stay. Stewart plays this highly emotional character with subtle undercurrents of apathy, evidenced especially by her habit of chain-smoking cigarettes while listening to anti-smoking cassettes. By contrast, Harris plays his villain as eerily difficult to read, leaving viewers in suspense about how far he’s willing to go. Yet there are also indications that he truly does care for others, such as when he enters the house of a recently murdered man and reacts to the scene by feeding the victim’s neglected bird.

The rest of the cast is more unhinged. Jackie seems initially hopeful, yet she grows frighteningly unpredictable as she increasingly responds to steroids like they were psychedelics. Franco’s portrayal of a sleazebag abuser is shockingly likable at times, an unusual choice to say the least. Toward the end, Anna Baryshnikov’s performance as Lou’s tragically space-brained ex Daisy nearly steals the show.

The film’s visual elements encapsulate the depressing worldviews of the characters. Camera movements are often shaky, occasionally unfocused. Colors seem brighter during brief moments of satisfaction yet remain otherwise washed out. As the plot goes off the rails, Glass relies on stylized filters to provide a sense of surrealism; this is notable in a couple of scenes toward the end as well as several flashbacks to Lou’s past. The sets appear dingy, cluttered, and occasionally downright filthy throughout.

Love Lies Bleeding treats sex and violence in much the same way it treats life in general. They’re neither romanticized nor stylized, but rather raw and vulgar. This may turn away certain escapist viewers, but those able to stomach it will find it oddly compelling. Unlike many queer films, Love Lies Bleeding is not afraid to show that sex is sometimes ugly. The underlying emotion can make it beautiful, but both Lou and Jackie also frequently use passion as a means of avoidance. At the same time, the violence is never so clean as to allow viewers to deem it forgivable. There’s very much a sense that the story may be leaving the characters psychologically more damaged than they were at the beginning.

The film’s main drawbacks lie simply in a few unintuitive character choices and an occasionally imbalanced plot. The third act is particularly messy, leading to unintentional laugh-out-loud moments such as Lou screaming “love you” after an especially fraught moment with Beth. This culminates in utter confusion when the movie reaches its climax, which involves an only somewhat foreshadowed supernatural element.

Love Lies Bleeding is a messy film, although sometimes by design. It’s not always clear what it means to say with its violence, but those who love debating with friends after a movie may actually find this one of its greatest strengths. Glass likely could have done much more with her strong cast and keen grasp of emotionally charged visuals, but it is nonetheless an above-average film much deserving of a two-hour escape into madness.