X (2022) Review
Director: Ti West
Screenwriter: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, Scott Mescudi
In the season premiere episode of the podcast “You Must Remember This: Erotic 80s“, host Karina Longworth says that sex and violence have always intersected in Hollywood. There is no talking about one without the other. And with the erotic thriller dead in the water, the only genre that seems to be in conversation with sex and danger – the only genre still allowed to indulge in both – is horror.
X, written and directed by Ti West, fails to take advantage of this despite it taking place in Texas in 1979. After all, it was a pivotal time in Hollywood. Filmmakers were actively trying to incorporate sex into mainstream movies. Films like Deep Throat enjoyed wide audience appeal, as well as success at the box office. The studio system was not what it was, and the ousting of the production code gave way to a new ratings system. The rules were changing. The culture was shifting. It’s in this vortex that the characters in X set out to answer the question on everyone’s mind at the time: is it possible to make a good dirty movie?
Unfortunately, the answer never comes.
X isn’t interested in engaging with the social and political climate of the era. Despite its premise as a slasher movie about a group of filmmakers making a porno, the sex and violence is surprisingly tame. Although it does contain homages to Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and even the pornographic movie, Blue Movie, it’s only skin deep. This is a missed opportunity, especially when the dirty movie the characters are making revolves around two white women having sex with a black man. Its failure to address the very obvious fetishism and hyper-sexualization of black men, not to mention race relations in the South, is just one example of the film’s indifference to the time period.
The closest the film gets to exploring sex in any real way is when Lorraine (played by newly crowned Scream Queen, Jenna Ortega) asks to film a scene for the movie. Her boyfriend RJ (Owen Campbell) adamantly disagrees with this, exposing his own hypocrisy and misogyny. Lorraine, he tells Wayne (Martin Henderson), is not like those other girls. She’s a ‘nice girl.’
But nothing substantial comes of this. RJ’s meltdown is a MacGuffin. The real horror of X is found elsewhere. Once the group arrives at their filming location, a run-down farm owned by Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife, Pearl (Mia Goth), it becomes clear that the real danger is getting older and the existential dread that comes with no longer being sexually desirable. Ure and Goth are heavily done up in prosthetics, and while the effect is realistic it is also grotesque. That seems to be the point. To its credit, the film has a great deal of sympathy for them. They aren’t one-dimensional villains and we are afforded time to understand their motives. It’s just an odd pivot considering the dynamics between the filmmakers are much more interesting to watch.
The ensemble cast is what makes the first half of X so fun. The characters all have distinct personalities, especially Bobby-Lynn, played by Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect), whose charm and comedic timing is sorely undervalued. But once the killings begin, the film loses something. X is obviously not a hard-hitting commentary on 1970s America, but it doesn’t seem like much of a slasher either. The last 40 minutes go by in a flash. West is just going through the motions, killing his characters in swift succession without giving much thought to how or why. Considering this is a genre whose audience often rates movies based on the ingenuity of the kills alone, the lack of care may ironically turn people off.
While the ensemble works well together, its to the film’s detriment that Mia Goth’s Maxine isn’t front and center the whole time. The decision to have Goth play both Pearl and Maxine is nothing short of genius, and the scenes in which both characters come together are some of the film’s best. With her in dual roles, X becomes less about the vague idea of getting older and more about facing one’s own reflection. It’s about confronting the regrets of the past, as well as the fears of the future. Their final confrontation is so compelling, and Goth’s performance so show-stopping, that you wish the two characters and the conflict between them was the whole movie.
Despite an electrifying final sequence and what it means for the future of Maxine’s character, it’s still too little too late. X is a film of missed opportunities, its bright spots overshadowed by pacing issues and an unwillingness to engage with the time period. But since the film is very much in conversation with its prequel Pearl, it’s still a worthy watch. Not a necessary one, mind you, but the narrative threads connecting Pearl and Maxine are only strengthened by watching both. And with the final instalment of the series MaXXXine, set in 1980s Los Angeles, already in production, Mia Goth is sure to cement herself as one of horror’s most intriguing final girls.