X (2022)

Ti West | 1hr 45min

The divisive culture wars of the Southern United States in the late 70s does not form the primary conflict of Ti West’s slasher film X, but it does make for a fascinating backdrop to the insecure, sex-starved rampage of ageing ranchers Pearl and Howard. From the loins of its dogmatic religious puritanism springs a depraved rebellion, thirsting for the worldly pleasures their patriarchal leaders deny. This metaphor is partly literal, with a late reveal shedding light on the origins of aspiring porn star Maxine Minx, but the inescapable presence of televangelists all through X also weaves in an oppressive formal motif which pushes us to side with her fellow cast and crew against the mainstream. Like those bible-thumping preachers, they are seeking to exploit modern media trends in their own way, leaving behind older generations who have grown irrelevant. The scene is thus set for a reckoning with America’s rotten past that has been left to waste away on the fringes of society, empowering West to deliver on a series of pulpy, tantalising thrills.

The lynchpin that connects scream queen Maxine and the decrepit, homicidal Pearl is Mia Goth, who displays an incredible range and chameleon-like abilities in both roles. As Pearl, the layers of prosthetics all over her face and body render her virtually unrecognisable, but Goth also carries a frailty in her voice and movement which distinguishes her from the younger, saucier Maxine. The acting achievement is somewhat similar to Tilda Swinton’s trio of distinct characters in 2018’s Suspiria, though Goth’s dual performances serve a greater formal purpose than simply a portfolio of talent. “We’re the same. You’ll end up just like me,” Pearl moans to her younger counterpart, offering a warning of the miserable fate which inevitably wears away at the beauty and vitality of youth.

With as decrepit a villain as this haunting the rural farm which Maxine’s crew has hired out for their porn shoot, West pays direct homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, infusing X with the grotesque amorality of its cinematic precursor. More broadly, this is his tribute to that entire era of independent filmmaking, adapting its aesthetic with experimental retrospection. The flickering transitions of Easy Rider are revived here, blending the end of one scene and the beginning of the next in such a way that keeps us from immediately grounding ourselves in new settings. The effect is unsettling, and West keeps pushing his eccentric editing forward during an acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ where a split screen contrasts the young filmmakers’ warm comfort against Pearl’s silent lament of her grey, leathery skin.

Perhaps it is in the violently creative murders where West is most comfortable as a filmmaker though. The early setup of an alligator dwelling in a nearby lake originally arrives as a warning of the ranch’s lurking danger, but there is also great narrative economy in its return later, driving up the tension when Pearl corners one hapless victim to the water’s edge. As she hacks away at another in front of his getaway car, the headlights are doused in his blood, consequently drenching the entire scene with a vibrant red hue. Like so many great horror films of the 70s, X thrives in these moments of impossible artifice, pushing our suspension of disbelief in such a way that alerts and torments the senses.

West isn’t treading new ground in his grindhouse pastiche, and yet is a provocative consideration of a specific cultural turning point in American history all the same, pitting the bitterness of ageing against the arrogant idealism of youth. Even beyond Maxine and Pearl, this ensemble consists of well-drawn characters, carefully delineated as archetypes of both the horror genre and the amateur film industry at large. The art-driven cinematographer, the vain actress, the innocent sound recordist roped into her boyfriend’s project – these are people we recognise, and yet who also possess vivid inner lives that we see brutally snuffed out one by one.

X’s ensemble is almost quite literally in conversation with the culture of extreme religiosity that they live in, especially with the omnipresent televangelist punctuating dramatic beats through his own commentary. “Now that’s what I call divine intervention!” he feverishly proclaims when Maxine finally gets a bit of luck on her side, and she also begins indirectly quoting him as she stares down Pearl’s shotgun. Even in this isolated, rural death trap of “sex fiends” and “murderers,” there is no separating the rebellious outsiders from the strait-laced mainstream they have run from. Exploitation runs deep in both, while for those like Pearl though who have been sapped of youth’s greatest indulgences, all that is left is a tragic, vengeful resentment.

X is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s