Ti West’s “X”: an Overrated Throwback
A work of art or entertainment can have a lot on its mind and under its hood, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, and no amount of sophisticated subtext is going to make you like it. Which brings us to Ti West’s X, a nasty retro slasher film, set in 1979 and indebted to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as to a number of ’70s porn flicks. X conflates sex and violence in an almost comically obvious way; it’s about a small crew of porn filmmakers who go to a remote location and get picked off gorily one by one, but not before they’ve plied their trade. So in a way, the movie is a meta commentary on the fuck-and-die motif that distinguished (if that is the word) many slasher flicks in the ’80s. It feels almost as if West intends it as a minimalist distillation of slasher and porn tropes: Here, this is what all those gross-out and skin flicks were getting at all along.
I suppose part of the meta joke is that X doesn’t really deliver either as horror or as sexploitation. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett stage the porn-making scenes unimaginatively, and the murder scenes, when they eventually come, follow suit. X is a slow burn, though it starts with a flash-forward to the police nosing around the bloody crime scene, as though West were saying “Yes, the first half of the movie is a lot of talk and hanging out, but don’t worry, gory stuff is coming.” And it does, but I found I didn’t care about the victims any more than I cared about the psycho fodder in, say, Friday the 13th Part 3.
The camera really only has eyes for Maxine (Mia Goth), a young porn actress with ambitions of being a star, whose freckles seem to come and go depending on the scene. Maxine is set up as the Final Girl, but she’s not especially likable or smart or … anything, really. Maxine’s psyching herself up in a mirror is perhaps a nod to Boogie Nights, and if we remember that film we know that X’s setting in 1979 is heavily ironic: Home video would soon turn porn into what it always really only was, jerkoff fodder, and the concept of porn “stars” more or less died. (I think the last adult-film performer whose name crossed over into mainstream consciousness was Stormy Daniels.) So Maxine is heading for a future in videos with titles like Dirty Texas Sluts, Vol. 17.
We can tell that Ti West wants X to be taken more seriously than the rotgut splatterthons whose aesthetic it plunders. That’s apparent in the first half’s sense of melancholy, its tonal lip service towards the sadnesses of age, the lost freedom of youth. A lot of the film seems to meditate on the sexual frustration of an elderly woman, Pearl, who with her husband owns the property where the porn crew are filming. Maxine finds Pearl’s sexual (and, it appears, bisexual) neediness pathetic and disgusting, and the movie seconds her. One can’t really divide the audience’s sympathies in what’s supposed to be a slasher throwback; you end up cancelling out any sympathy. I won’t say horror movies should be nice, or even politically correct, but if we’re to care about a character it’d help if that character didn’t invite our disdain, either by ageist bigotry or by murderous brutality. In brief, the movie’s take on sexuality among the elderly, however gently Pearl’s longing is framed, is that codger sex is creepy and gross.
In a movie where people are pitchforked, fed to a gator, and generally roughly treated, we search in vain for a warm heart. But, whatever West’s intentions, X comes across as a cold exercise rather than a hot, blood-red shot of the strong stuff. Cold and unfeeling. You can’t ask us to think about an old woman’s feelings of hopelessness and then push us to root for her messy death. Whatever West is trying here doesn’t ultimately land, maybe because West himself doesn’t seem to care about any of these people. (Regardless, we are told that a prequel film, Pearl, is already in the can.) Anyway, something is seriously amiss with the tone. Some viewers will find it a spicy hit of cruel fun, while others will feel a little rubbed raw, not to mention disappointed and bummed out. There are actual pornographic horror films, with a budget for gory effects and everything. Any of them, in their simple, mercenary eagerness to please, might set on the stomach a bit better than X.