Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
— Landslide, Fleetwood Mac
I was taken with Ti West’s X from its opening shot.
It’s not a complicated setup. The film opens on a hot summer day in a rural area, focusing on a dilapidated farmhouse straight out of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Appropriating a grindhouse-era aspect ratio, the camera remains steady as a police car, lights flashing, approaches the house. When the aspect ratio gradually widens, we gain information about the scene. There are actually two other police cars already on site, and as we slowly zoom in, we see a body covered with a sheet and a very bloody front porch.
Again, it’s not a complicated moment, but it’s an introduction that immediately informs the considerable talent of the director. What’s the purpose of the setup? Other than orienting us visually and cinematically in 1970s filmmaking, it trains the audience to expect the unexpected. Be aware of the full frame, not just what’s immediately in front of you. Director Ti West knows what he’s doing, and his X succeeds with his wildly off-kilter, often bizarre, yet completely assured vision.
X is a 70s-inspired slasher film told in two parts. The first part, the setup, establishes the characters and themes in a dread-filled, tense atmosphere. By now, audiences have been trained to associate sex with violence in slasher films. The final girl is the prude-ish virgin and the like. And, for a while, X seems intent on following that path, only it subverts the trope midstream (to explain would be to spoil).
Stars Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell are actors and crew on an independent film shoot in rural Texas. Okay, I’m being generous. They’re making a porno, “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The producer/director of the film, Henderson’s Wayne, ill-advisedly rents a detached boarding house on an isolated farm owned by the elderly (to put it kindly) Howard and Pearl. I’ll stop right here because, the least you know about the film’s plot, the better off you’ll be.
The film’s first hour does the heavy lifting thematically. We’re heavily steeped in religious iconography and content in a post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan America. The obvious visual inspiration lives in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but X one-ups that brutal, terrifying film by giving its characters backstories, layers, hopes, and dreams. They’re all out for a get-rich-quick scheme, particularly Wayne who correctly understands the importance of the growing home video porn market. Yet, it’s Goth’s Maxine whose singular vision of becoming a star comes most sharply into focus. Snow’s Bobby-Lynne (giving a fully layered performance) initially appears to have the most knack for the work, but it’s later revealed that Maxine does indeed have the most talent.
And the film doesn’t shy away from its characters’ penchant for sex and excess. Rather, it celebrates their freedoms. It gives the women of the story agency over their bodies and what they do with them, an anachronistic touch from slasher cinema of the period. Don’t get me wrong. They’re still “punished” for their sins as expected in horror films. Yet, there’s a major shift between characters like Maxine and Ortega’s Lorraine and Halloween’s prototypical last girl Laurie Strode.
The back half of the film settles into more standard slasher film territory, although with much more visual panache and genuine shocks. In a light meta commentary, the film crew working on the porno want to make a great film. RJ (Campbell), the cinematographer/editor, references French cinema in his vision for the film. West, too, has a unique, elevated vision for the death sequences. He plays with lighting, shadows, and brutally efficient jump-cut edits to keep the audience off-kilter. He’s here to make a horror film that fits within the A24 line of elevated grindhouse cinema.
X is the kind of film where characters break out into song midstream (Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide) because it wants to give us information in non-standard ways. It’s also the kind of film where, after a brutal murder, the killer stops to dance painfully, completely lacking grace in a fleeting moment of demented fantasia. Actually, “demented fantasia” is probably the best phrase to describe the film. It takes insanely uncomfortable leaps to shock and frighten. It wants the audience to squirm in revulsion, yet strangely moved by the often beautifully shot set pieces. There’s a great deal to love here, if you’re of the right mindset.
And, honestly, who couldn’t use a palate cleanser in the death rattle of Oscar season?