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Still image of actress Katy O'Brian using gym equipment, taken from the movie Love Lies Bleeding.
Image: Anna Kooris, courtesy of A24

The first time Lou watches Jackie strut through Crater gym in Love Lies Bleeding, is the first time the camera watches Jackie strut through Crater gym, is the first time I watched Jackie strut through Crater gym. Within those three layers of female gaze—mine, director Rose Glass’s, actress Kristen Stewart’s (she plays Lou; Katy O’Brian plays Jackie)—it becomes hard to parse how much of my reaction to Jackie is personal to me and how much lives apart from me, embedded in how she is presented on screen. Love Lies Bleeding is an exercise in subversion within a gaze that is already itself subversive.

Jackie is a hitchhiker on a stopgap in a small New Mexico town on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. In the scene above, she is working out in a run-down gym—wood-paneled walls, a carpet that looks animated by decades of sweat, overflowing toilets—managed by the existentially exhausted Lou, whose father owns the place. It’s 1989, so Jackie has a pretty bouffant 'do, she is wearing hiked-up circusy red and white shorts, and a tiny white top, a sort of barely-there sports bra. (“I was talking to Olga, the costume designer, I was like, ‘No one actually works out in outfits like this. You know that, right? Even in the ’80s. It’s just for magazine covers,’” O’Brian told Out magazine. “And she goes, ‘Yeah, but you are.’”) In the middle of this godforsaken place, Jackie is so otherworldly she might as well have fallen from outer space and formed a crater herself.

This is the thing with Jackie and why no one can take their eyes off her: She quietly collapses so many boundaries that weren’t really announcing themselves to begin with. She has big hair like an ’80s prom queen—Glass told Mashable this detail was inspired by pioneering bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, and the wig looks out of place on O’Brian's head though that only underscores her conspicuousness. She has the cute teeth of a teenage girl, but the angular face of a grown woman. She is at once young and old, at once a woman and yet woman doesn’t seem to encapsulate her quite enough. She has a physique which precedes her, but calling her “a big girl” (as the woman who is hot for Lou does) seems inaccurate. She is just … Jackie. She is just O’Brian.

O’Brian, who was born in Indiana the year Love Lies Bleeding takes place and began studying martial arts when she was only 5, worked as a police officer for 7 years and did some bodybuilding of her own (the cost, both financial and chemical, pushed her out) before she decided to become an actor, landing in sci-fi shows like Z Nation and The Mandalorian and movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Of Love Lies Bleeding, which she got because she badgered her agents after a fan told her about the callout, O’Brian told Elle: “I was like, Who else is going to do this? I didn’t know any other actors that were also bodybuilders. I certainly didn’t know any that were also queer, that were also from the Midwest.”

Jackie’s unclassifiable appearance is only compounded by her persona. There is a buoyancy to Jackie. She is sleeping rough, but presents light, almost guileless. She is introduced being fucked by the grossest guy on earth (Dave Franco, gamely playing the abusive husband of Lou’s sister, played by the always welcome Jena Malone) but she transcends the moment. She takes up space, but she also reads shy. She is charming, but punchy. She flirts with guys, but she also beats them up and then falls in love with a girl. She is forward (kissing Lou first) but also coy—when Lou asks her to touch herself, she holds back. Part of this is how she appears in relation to Lou. Lou, who is nothing but baggage, trying and failing to shrug off the weight of her psychopathic father (who used to get her to do his dirty work and is played with a granite intensity by Ed Harris). Lou, who is greasy and tired and wired and rarely smiles. Lou, who smolders, next to Jackie, who flies.

The irony of Jackie’s luminosity is that this movie plays in the body horror space, like Glass’s first feature, Saint Maud, in which an ascetic nurse eventually self immolates. The director has mentioned David Cronenberg as inspiration and that impulse gives the pulpy Love Lies Bleeding its literal pulp. The film opens with Lou’s hand down a toilet full of blood and shit and toilet paper and god knows what else. While she scrubs her hands, her former lover with terrible teeth kisses her. And then there’s the grotesque violence—Lou’s face blasted with the blood and brains of her ex, shot in the head in front of her; the grotesque swell of flesh on Lou’s sister’s cheek caused by her abusive husband; the hanging jaw of the husband himself, his head slammed repeatedly into a coffee table. Marya E. Gates compared the film to The Killer Inside Me (which shows a woman’s face being pummeled to pieces), the difference being the campy humor underlying Love Lies Bleeding (at my screening, a couple of audience members impulsively laughed at the dangling jaw). There is a layer of self-aware skeeze over all of these mullets—over everyone, really, except for Jackie.

Within these festering surroundings, Jackie delivers a calming ripple. O’Brian spent two weeks with celebrity trainer Steve Zim accentuating the right muscles for the camera. And while bodybuilding is infamous for how paradoxically weak it leaves its practitioners, O’Brian looks solid here. “I know a lot of people are like ‘Oh, bodybuilders aren’t training for strength,’ and I technically wasn’t,” she told GQ of her previous foray into bodybuilding, “but I could still deadlift almost 400 pounds.” That her physical appearance is presented as such a soothing balm is ironic considering O’Brian has spoken of losing even bodybuilding roles for being too big. “I’m by no means the most muscular woman I know, yet my physique drastically limits the roles I will be seen for,” she told Archer magazine four years ago, adding, “even in action roles, it seems that the male standard is chiseled abs and mountainous shoulders and the female standard is being ‘toned’ – but not muscular.”

In Love Lies Bleeding, Glass dabbles in magical realism just as she did in Saint Maud. But instead of levitating, her heroine this time around literally grows in size. As Jackie works out more and more, with the help of the steroids her new lover has introduced her to, her muscles get bigger and bigger (props to the foley artist for whatever they used to make the gross "growing muscles" sound). One guy calls Jackie Rambo, but she is more like the Hulk, as, every once in a while, her muscles suddenly expand, and her veins pop. And just as her body seems to be out of her control, so too does the violence it inflicts. She’s the one who breaks Lou’s brother-in-law’s jaw, leaving it hanging by a thread (“I made it right,” she babbles), she’s the one who shoots the woman who loves Lou. Lou is the one who cleans up after her, as if Jackie is the child and she is the wary adult trailing behind her. And much like a child, there is the feeling that you can’t quite hold Jackie responsible for any of this.

As the film wears on, Jackie’s otherworldliness gets even more literalized. At the Vegas competition, she appears out of place among all those pros—her '80s gear scans too garish, her smile too fake (that her performance culminates in her vomiting in the middle of the stage, tracks). She becomes so big that at a certain point she dwarfs the people below her. It is the attack of the 50-foot bodybuilder, who pins down Lou’s father with barely more than a pair of fingers. Back down to normal size, in the car fleeing that backwoods crater,  it’s Lou who is driving, who is forced to deal with the aftermath. Jackie is asleep because, of course she is. As we know by now, she can literally rise above it all.

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