Justin Lockwood says there’s much to admire in Ti West’s return to horror.
X is Ti West’s long-awaited return to the horror genre and delightfully assured filmmaking. West, the writer and director of The House of the Devil (2009) and The Sacrament (2013), has created a beautifully shot, well-edited, and highly entertaining film. Sure, it’s an unhinged slasher with an enjoyably raunchy, let’s make a porno premise, but the talent in front of and behind the camera is undeniable. It’s an outstanding film.
X centers on the cast and crew of “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a no-budget porn film being shot on a rented property just outside of Houston in rural Texas, circa 1979. The characters include Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson), the producer and money man. Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), the confident starlet. Jackson Hole (Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi), a cocky stud, and RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell), a wet-behind-the-ears director with delusions of avant-garde grandeur. “It is possible to make a good dirty movie!” RJ exclaims to his girlfriend and production assistant Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the intelligent, soft-spoken, seemingly steadfast picture of purity. The lead character, though, is Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), Wayne’s lover and superstar in the making. Her curious mantra is, “I will not accept a life I do not deserve!” Maxine has a coke habit and a quality that suggests she’s a little harsh around the edges. Yet, she’s upbeat, strong-willed, and believes Wayne’s assurances that she’s “special.”
The group is eager to mount their new production, but their hosts, the elderly property owners, are odd and mysterious. Howard (Stephen Ure) greets Wayne at gunpoint with his shotgun before the latter explains who he is, while his wife Pearl, also portrayed by Goth, invites Maxine in for an awkward glass of lemonade before making a pass at her. When Lorraine upsets RJ by asking to be on camera, he decides to ditch the group. Before he can drive off into the night, he nearly runs over Pearl—and things swiftly go from bad to worse. Throughout the film, we realize that Pearl is a dark reflection of Maxine. Goth’s dual role is so intelligent on West’s part, and that is one reason why. Pearl laments her lost beauty and sexual frustration. She fixates on Maxine, someone she both desires and envies. She and Howard resent the film crew for their youth and beauty, a resentment the film crew doesn’t realize until it might be too late.
Watching X, you get the sense that nothing in the film is an accident. A second viewing revealed that it’s filled with foreshadowing, and in hindsight, a background element was layered in so thoroughly that it was bound to pay off. West uses both source and score music magnificently. Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe create a compelling score that gives Pearl a musical voice through Wolfe’s haunting vocals. West and music supervisor Joe Rudge pick great tracks that often reflect the themes of the film, like “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry and “(Don’t) Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The film’s musical highlight comes when Pearl commits a brutal act as “(Don’t) Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio. The sound artfully switches over to the score, filling the space with Bates and Wolfe’s eerie cover of “Oui Oui Marie” and back again. A gorgeous cover of “Landslide” is also performed by Snow and Cudi in the film.
The visuals in X are top-notch. The introductory shot of Snow—emerging from the Bayou Burlesque strip club with a mural of a similarly statuesque blonde behind her as she walks out of frame—is clever and beautiful to look at, as is much of Eliot Rocket’s cinematography. Rocket previously collaborated with West on two of his early horror features, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers (2011). The editing is excellent, with a unique transition technique on the right side of showy, including gracefully intercut scenes like a seduction in The Farmer’s Daughter and Maxine’s first meeting with Pearl.
It’s all held together by a tight, amusing script that touches on sexual mores, relationships, aging, and regret while never losing its momentum or entertainment value. The storytelling is strong, with so many aspects of the film working in concert. The film builds up many parallels between the two women at its center, aided by their portrayal by Goth. The conclusion brings their conflict to a head and fits that old writer’s adage that the ending should be “unexpected, yet inevitable.” It is deeply satisfying.
The entire cast is strong, but the film belongs to Goth, while Snow nearly steals the show as Bobby-Lynne. Goth’s portrayal of both characters is vibrant and thoroughly lived in. Pearl is probably the most memorable horror “villain” (the word doesn’t quite do her justice) of the past decade, owing to West’s writing and Goth’s portrayal. Goth can suggest a lifetime of passions, aspirations, and vulnerabilities with minimal dialogue. Pearl is a strange, intriguing personality in a peculiar and fascinating film. West and his crew have made something exceptional here. X is creepy, funny, emotionally affecting, and unforgettable.