By Alex McPherson
Paying homage to horror classics like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” while also subverting clichés to surprising ends, Ti West’s “X” is one of 2022’s most brutally entertaining films so far.
The action unfolds during one blood-soaked day in rural Texas in 1979, focusing on a group of friends shooting a porno they hope will launch them into stardom. Maxine (Mia Goth) is a coke-snorting exotic dancer with a mysterious past and spunky spirit. Her enterprising fiancé, Wayne (Martin Henderson, doing a solid Matthew McConaughey impression), wants the world to appreciate Maxine’s talent, taking on the role of the project’s opportunistic “executive producer.” They are joined by well-endowed actress Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Vietnam veteran Jackson (Kid Cudi), as well as director RJ (Owen Campbell) — who aims to inject some avant-garde cinematic techniques to the shoot — and his quiet, initially skeptical girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who operates a boom-mic.
They’re not especially intelligent, but their teasing camaraderie proves charming, even wholesome at times. Unfortunately, the crew winds up filming at a secluded guest house run by a crotchety old man named Howard (Stephen Ure), and his spindly, emaciated wife, Pearl (Goth, playing dual roles), who is simultaneously turned on and filled with murderous rage at the horny youngsters.
Although “X” isn’t an especially innovative horror outing, there’s practically nonstop fun to be had in West’s glorious comedy of carnage. Indeed, what could have been a simple, throwaway story in other directors’ hands is bolstered by stylistic verve, likable characters, and an antagonist given unexpected depth beneath the killing.
The central team includes some exaggerated personalities, but they wind up being refreshingly enjoyable to watch, genuinely believing they can break through in their industry while serving a valuable societal purpose. Maxine stands out as an ambitious woman with unspoken trauma, making her easy to root for as she finds herself in perilous circumstances. Goth — communicating as much through her eyes as dialogue — lends her a fierce determination along with her insecurity.
The rest of the crew aren’t as well developed, but the actors’ chemistry with one another is excellent. West’s screenplay supplies numerous one-liners and some tender moments of bonding that gives enough emotional heft to the subsequent slaughtering. Much of this is due to the film’s sex-positive, open-minded views of its characters, villains included. Whereas other horror films seemingly punish characters for having sex, “X” flips the cliché on its head — using it as an empowering, liberating, enviable facet of the human experience, the deprivation and jealousy of which can lead to rage and violence.
Without spoiling too much, the slasher in question, Pearl, who Goth portrays with a low-key viciousness despite her frailty, is given enough motivation that West almost wants viewers to empathize with her. The quieter, more melancholic plot beats involving Pearl and Howard — surrounding their aging bodies and repressed urges — lend “X” a more humanistic, unsettling edge, albeit disrupting the largely tongue-in-cheek tone previously established.
Regardless of the film’s more feminist leanings, however, West still adopts an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the rest of the material, capturing the isolated, bug-ridden, sun-scorched prairies and backwoods lakes with prudish televangelists blaring in the background. There’s a sense of voyeuristic claustrophobia from start to finish, complemented by an eerily wispy score by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe and the occasional frustrating fake-out jump scare. West uses the film’s slow-burn pacing to effectively heighten suspense and make moments of violence morbidly gratifying, even funny, not skimping on gore or twisted laughs. The editing contains clever flourishes, such as screen wipes, split screens, and hallucinatory imagery that emphasizes the unlikely similarities between Maxine and Pearl — the contrasts between the young and the old.
By the time the third act rolls around, though, thematic richness takes a backseat to the slashing, leaving several threads not explored as much as they could have been. Fortunately, “X” still serves up no-holds-barred thrills with a decent helping of brains, exceeding expectations every step of the way.
“X” is a 2022 horror film directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega and Brittany Snow. It is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language. It runs 1 hour, 45 minutes and opened in theatres March 18. Alex’s Grade: A-
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd who contributes movie reviews for Cultured Vultures and Pop Life STL. He is also a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.