British director Rose Glass follows her creepy horror debut Saint Maud (2019) with this achingly cool lesbian body-building neo-noir, a deliriously wild ride that plays like the Wachowskis’ classic erotic thriller Bound (1996) on actual steroids. Stylish, sexy and savagely violent, it’s a dynamite second feature for Glass that’s clearly destined for cult status.

Set in 1989 New Mexico, the film stars Kristen Stewart as Lou, the manager of a sleazy gym, who falls hard for jacked-up loner Jackie (newcomer Katy O’Brian) when she drifts into town on her way to a body-building competition in Las Vegas. Initiated by a surprisingly sexy steroid injection, the pair begin a steamy relationship, but events take a dangerous turn when Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) is hospitalised by her sleazy husband JJ (Dave Franco) and a ‘roided-up Jackie takes matters into her own hands, beating him to a bloody pulp.

Stewart is simply sensational as Lou, investing her with compelling degrees of hunger, vulnerability and guilt, as well as a downbeat sensibility that makes her the perfect noir protagonist. Similarly, O’Brian is magnetic and fascinating as Jackie, using her arresting physicality and thousand-watt smile to dangerously seductive effect, and sparking white-hot chemistry with Stewart.

The supporting performances are equally colourful, particularly Ed Harris, who’s clearly enjoying himself as bug-chewing, mulleted Lou Sr., the local crime boss who just happens to be both Lou’s father and boss to both JJ and Jackie, after she gets a job waitressing at his gun range. Similarly, Malone is heart-breaking as Beth, who still loves JJ, despite his horrific, regular violence towards her, while Anna Baryshnikov makes a strong impression as Daisy, a client at the gym whose obsession with Lou gets her into serious trouble.

Glass takes to the genre like a natural born noirista, establishing an atmosphere that’s positively dripping with the possibility of violence and investing the sex scenes with palpable heat. She’s aided by cinematographer Ben Fordesman (who also worked on Saint Maud), who drenches the entire production in dark shadow and lurid neon.

What’s particularly impressive is the way that Glass takes a couple of bold swings into sci-fi / fantasy territory that could easily have gone horribly wrong in different hands, but end up giving this an extra level of delightful weirdness that really sets it apart. Without giving too much away, it has to do with the depiction of Jackie’s steroid addiction (internet wags have already dubbed this “A24 She-Hulk”), which pays off in decidedly unexpected ways, making you genuinely afraid for her sanity in the process.

Speaking of which, the effects work is queasily brilliant throughout, not just on the gory excesses meted out to JJ (to say that Jackie leaves him “a bloody mess” would be a considerable understatement), but also in the deeply upsetting after-effects of the domestic violence on Beth. To that end, Glass commendably has that sequence happen off-screen, correctly surmising that to do otherwise (as many other directors would have done) would be overly exploitative.

The script, co-written by Glass and fellow filmmaker Weronika Tofilska, is alive to the pleasures of the neo-noir genre, tracing a line of fatalism that leads from lust and desire into an inevitable spiral of crime, violence and murder. The dialogue is great too, and there are movie references abound, including one that’s too spoilery to reveal here, but will put a big smile on the face of any 1950s sci-fi devotees.  

Ultimately, this is a pulpy treat from start to finish, thanks to note perfect direction from Glass and terrific performances from Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian, with a pulsing electronic score from Clint Mansell proving the icing on an already delicious cake. Unmissable.

Featured image: courtesy A24