This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
The Pitch: X has a lot on its mind, and the line between exploitation and empowerment is just one of many rich themes mined by Ti West in his first feature film since the 2016 John Travolta and Ethan Hawke-starring Western In A Valley of Violence.
“So the camera changes things,” Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) says midway through the film, just before RJ, Lorraine’s boyfriend and the young starry-eyed director of the porno at the center of the film, storms out of the shoot, furious and uncomfortable with her sudden interest in appearing on-screen in their dirty picture.
Lorraine, quiet as a church mouse, is the innocent boom mic operator, not like these other girls willing to debase themselves on-camera, or at least that’s how RJ sees it when he’s making the case against adding her sex scene to the movie, implying to the de-facto leader of the group Wayne (Martin Henderson) that his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), one of the stars of the porno film, is lesser-than for doing so. Let’s just say Wayne doesn’t take too kindly to this assumption.
Many have already compared the film to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and while they’re certainly right to do so, West is after something a bit more ambitious than simply paying homage to one of the greatest horror pictures of all time. Yes, it’s a love letter to that film — entire sequences are modeled on it — but that descriptor is limiting as it’s more a classic example of a “movie about the movies.”
To get even more granular, ultimately, X is a movie about the joys of DIY-filmmaking and making cheap smut with your friends. And then, just when you think you know where it’s going and all the possible secrets have been revealed, X disorients you anew with what it’s really all about: the anxiety of getting old, squandering your youth, and the killer desires that remain with us even as our faculties start to shut down.
It’s a portrait of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. It may have more in common with M. Night Shyamalan’s Old or even Michael Haneke’s Love than it does Chainsaw or Boogie Nights (another movie regularly referenced in conjunction with X).
Okay, the Real Pitch: The short version is this: X follows a group of young filmmakers, the aforementioned RJ and Wayne, and wannabe movie stars Maxine, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi), in 1979 as they embark on shooting a porno movie in Houston, Texas.
They rent a small house on an elderly couple’s property to do so, and don’t tell their not-so-gracious hosts what they’re up to. You can probably guess a variation of what happens next by the fact that it’s a horror film.
After her first sex scene, it’s clear that Maxine has got the “X” factor needed to make it in the industry, and her friends aren’t the only one who notices. The elderly woman, Pearl, has her eye on them all but winds up with a particular interest in Maxine; she sees glimpses of her younger self in her. Pearl doesn’t seem to mind what the no-good that the kids are up to, as we catch her horny-peeping after learning of her husband’s lack of interest in fulfilling her sexual desires.
West expertly mines the juxtapositions between the young sexually-active youth and the impotent elderly for both gutting horror and cringey gross-out, but actually sort of sweet, horror-comedy. In fact, he cleverly lays all the cards on the table, right in front of your face, and practically gloats about it. It’s a real treat to see all the different themes and threads merge together; a pitch-perfect, thematically-appropriate use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” inspired real authentic laughs.
Is There Such a Thing as Elevated Porn? Before the cameras roll on their magnum opus, the characters spend a lot of time discussing the merits of pornography as art, and it’s easy to make the connection that West is using porn here as a stand-in for the horror genre. Both are considered smutty and “lesser-than” other forms of cinema, no matter how popular they are.
“You can make a good dirty movie,” RJ states early on, detailing how he’ll use avant-garde new (to 1979) French filmmaking tricks and unique angles to make it “artful.” He talks about how porn “isn’t only for perverts anymore,” which is exactly how people talk about low-budget independent movies as they become more and more mainstream, and also mirrors what actually was going on with pornography at this time, with movies like Deep Throat breaking through and forever altering the public consciousness.
And speaking of cameras rolling, Ti West and his constantly panning-and-zooming camera are officially back, baby, and in a big way! The clever The Searchers-style opening doorframe shot mimics the small frame of the porn they’ll soon be shooting before the camera pushes through, widening the image to fill the screen. Plus, the way West shoots an alligator approaching an unsuspecting swimmer (symbolically representing the group’s impending doom) proves that the writer/director/editor is in top form.