The more I think about it, the more the 70s were a truly strange time for filmmaking. The 70s seemed like the decade where anyone and everyone could make a movie, budget and cast size be damned. Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Debbie Does Dallas feel like films that could only exist in that weird period where low and mid-budget movies were all the range. There obviously were massive studio films coming out in the era, but this was the era of 42nd street, where sleaze, cheese, and grindhouse shlock was the name of the game, all of which X directly draws from.
X is a niche film if I ever saw one. It appeals to a very specific demographic with a very specific viewpoint, but if you slot into that subsection, you’re going to adore the film. As for everyone else though, there’s still a lot to like about it. It’s an arthouse slasher movie with a ton of sleaze.
Look, A24 put their label on it, so you should know what you’re getting yourself into on principle alone.
Director: Ti West
Release Date: March 18, 2022 (Theatrical)
Set in 1979, X follows a group of people trying to film a porno in an incredibly Christian community in Texas. The crew is small, consisting of only six people, but they rent out a farmhouse owned by an ancient-looking couple that, of course, don’t seem on the up and up. Once they discover that they’re making a porno on their property, the elderly couple have very different reactions. Howard (Stephen Ure) feels rage at people committing dirty actions on his property, while his wife Pearl feels lust towards one of the actresses, Maxine, with Mia Goth playing both of the characters. And since this is a slasher movie, bodies will bleed and people are gonna die.
As a throwback to an earlier era in cinema, I really dig a lot of the little things that make this feel like a lost 70s movie. A lot of the shots feel very reminiscent of horror movies of the period, especially Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the film quality also shifting at times to match it. The film is very upfront about its presentation of sex and doesn’t try to shy away from the mature nature of it. Sure, the characters are making a porno that’s sex for the sake of sex, but the film presents it outside of the film in a mature and reasonable way. It’s nothing mindblowing, but it’s nice to see characters talk openly about sex in a way that isn’t just for the sake of titillation.
There’s an air of tragedy to the whole proceedings as well, with a lot of time utilized to show how Pearl feels deprived and empty. She wants to feel loved again, but the methods she goes about doing so turn her into a compelling villain. You feel bad for Pearl watching her try to make herself look pretty and desirable only for Howard to shrug her off. You almost understand how such a repressive culture/society can make someone like Pearl murder others who spur her advances. She’s ultimately still the villain, but she’s one that feels substantial compared to most other slasher villains.
Mia Goth plays both Pearl and Maxine wonderfully, bringing direct comparisons and parallels between the two women. You can easily see the impact that religion played in their upbringings and their desire for some kind of validation. Again, it really digs into a lot of Christploitation movies of the period as well, a genre that you don’t see much of nowadays. This is a throwback in all of the right ways and doesn’t openly try to just cram in references to older time periods that older people would get.
But X feels like it takes forever to get to those points. There’s a lot of slow buildup leading to the climax, with very little to spice things up leading up to it. There is some drama between the crew’s cameraman RJ (Owen Campbell) and his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), but it only lasts for a scene or two before the violence truly begins and that takes precedence. The film also doesn’t really trust its audience enough to understand the parallels and messages it’s trying to convey. Having Pearl and Maxine being played by the same actress is a great touch, as is Maxine’s motto being the same as a Televangelist pastor tell us about her backstory, but having the movie openly come out and explain the subtext feels like the wrong approach.
X is an odd movie in a lot of respects, but it’s a movie that should be a good time. The cast is great and the elements of 70s cinema thrown inside make it feel like a love letter to the decade in a way that few films can capture. But outside of those elements, the film doesn’t seem to trust its audience to understand what it’s getting at and takes a while for it to really explain itself. It’s almost as if the film lacks confidence in itself outside of the sex and violence. I’m curious to see where the prequel film goes, especially since it was shot simultaneously with X, because there is something here. Maybe it needs a little more refinement, but Ti West has something interesting going on here that’s worth keeping an eye on.