I’ve always given writer/director Ti West credit for trying with his films. Whether it was the 80s VHS clamshell horror of debut The House of the Devil or the found footage cult madness of The Sacrament, there’s always solid filmmaking not content to merely emulate, but to live and luxuriate in the style he’s working in. It never worked for me…that is until now. X gloriously revels in 70s cinema without coming off as cheap imitation or overt worshipfulness a la Rob Zombie. It may get a bit muddled in its ambitions, but I’ll take that over cheap homage and surface grit any day.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: It’s 1979, and our gang is young, dumb, and ready to…make an artful porno the next county over in Texas. They rent a cottage on old Howard’s property, who honest take to these young kids flaunting what God gave ’em, but the money’s good, so long as they stay away from the house where his wife, Pearl, looks out from an upstairs window. Young Maxine will do what it takes to be a star, but her hunger awakens something in Pearl who longs for a taste, too…
Although there is direct homage to Tobe Hooper, particularly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, the skill and craft shown on X is above the grind of those movies. This is a gorgeous looking film, sharply edited to reflect the concerns of young director/cameraman RJ who believes porn can be art, too. Performances are strong across the board, but Mia Goth is working another level here. There’s a choice made here in her performance I won’t spoil, but it goes a long way to both reinforcing some of West’s themes while weakening them at the same time.
Because as much as this looks like another slasher film from the time period, West is also aiming to say something about the appetites of the young, and how age doesn’t necessarily diminish those appetites. We learn a lot more about Pearl and her husband Howard than you would from a typical slasher (indeed, Hooper never gave the Sawyer family this much personality), and their despair at what their age has seemingly lost them hurts as much as seeing Maxine’s drive to be famous no matter the cost. As someone starting to feel how age can betray the body and potentially limit my own ambitions in certain (less X-rated) endeavors, it struck closer to home for me than it may for others.
However, that theme gets a bit buried as West tries to have his cake and eat it, too: for every mile made in sexual liberation he has set this group up to be picked off one by one, and so X takes a few glancing blows as its frankly great cast (Kid Cudi’s performance is better than any of his albums, and Brittany Snow is simply beaming) get murdered in various fun and horrific ways.
I’m not going to hold that against X, though. I can clearly see the points West is trying to make, and the fact that he wraps it up in his best film to date makes it work really well for me. I’m dying to go see Pearl, his prequel made at the same time (Dan covered it for his Hooptober here) but until I can I may just have to go back to his earlier work and see if it changes at all for me.
Or maybe just put X on one more time. That alligator scene, man…brilliant.