‘X’ Review: Sex and Slaughter Down in Texas with Ti West
By Daniel Rester
Ti West is best known for his contributions to the horror genre, with The House of the Devil (2009) and The Sacrament (2014) being some of his stronger works. West hasn’t made a horror film since The Sacrament though, instead mostly focusing on helming television episodes for various shows. X marks the spot for his return to the film genre, a welcome one at that as the filmmaker delivers a memorable bloodbath of creativity.
X follows a group of young adults in 1979 who set out to make a porno film. Some of them want to use the opportunity to be stars, others to be filmmakers, and others to be businessmen. They think they can add something new to the burgeoning VHS market and become famous. Because porn can be art too, man.
Wayne (Martin Henderson, doing his best Matthew McConaughey) is the producer of the skin flick and plans to shoot it in a guest house on a remote farm in Texas. Except he fails to tell the elderly owners of the property what his intentions are. Things spiral out of control and the cast and crew of “The Farmer’s Daughters” end up having to fight for their lives.
West’s offbeat horror film feels like a mix of early Tobe Hooper flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Eaten Alive (1976), psycho-biddy films, and Boogie Nights (1997). The filmmaker makes it his own though while showing his love for the independent filmmaking process and commenting on the effects of sex, youth, and religion on the elderly that “get confused.” The first half of his film develops the well-drawn characters, slowly builds tension, and presents processes behind porn filmmaking. The second half twists the knife and enters slasher territory.
Mia Goth takes lead duty as Maxine Minx, one of the female stars of the porno; she also impressively plays the elderly woman, ex-dancer Pearl, with the help of some expert makeup. These performances are further examples of Goth’s growing talents. Without her commitment here, X would be less compelling than it ends up being. Her dreamlike dancing scene in front of a van is especially strange but mesmerizing stuff from her and West.
The supporting players bring a lot to the table too, with West’s writing giving them all just enough to be able to make them humans first, slasher victims second. Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Brittany Snow bring a lot of charm as the stars of the porno, while Owen Campbell perfectly captures a young director who is trying to do the best he can with the material he’s given. Jenna Ortega is strapped with the cliche shy girlfriend role, but she still gives it energy.
I was loving X up to and including the first kill scene, the most brutal of the bunch. West uses the first half to establish the setting well (dry fields, murky ponds, old barns, etc.) as we get to know the characters and their goals. The sex scenes come across as fun for some characters, but take on a different meaning for other characters. There’s plenty of nudity and sweat here, but West makes it have purpose – and not just for the younger characters. He also takes time for quiet scenes with characters just enjoying a swim or a guitar tune, all shot beautifully and with plenty of wide shots by cinematographer Eliot Rockett.
After the film hits its high point with that first kill scene, X enters more familiar slasher territory. The old antagonists remain creepy throughout but don’t quite get as many layers to them as West makes you think they will. The blood and gore is all well done, but some of the suspense and kill scenes are just too predictable in their outcomes to be very effective. The last couple of scenes are pretty wild with their twists and turns though, so West at least gets X to go out on a high note.
X is a mostly solid – and sometimes even great – horror return for West. The cast has no weak links, the characters are believable, and the craftsmanship is impressive on many fronts. I just wish West’s writing for the second half was stronger as it disappoints compared to the first half.
West and Goth are set to return for a prequel titled Pearl, which has already been shot and is being edited. I’m interested to see where West goes with this world next. With Goth returning, he already has a big plus on his side.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 1h 45min