Review: Ti West Delivers Scares, Sex and Suspense with a Strong Ensemble Cast in X

I have a tendency to counter anyone’s argument that they didn’t like a film because it didn’t meet their expectation of what the film would be or didn’t turn out to be the film that was advertised. For the latter comment, I always respond “Trailers always lie.” But the former, I tend to say something along the lines of “So because the film wasn’t what you thought it would/should be, that means it’s bad?” Expectations of some variety or another are tough to escape, but with X, the latest horror outing from writer/director Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil, In the Valley of Violence), there is no getting around the fact that West not only delivers exactly what is promised, but also a whole lot more. Blending horror and porn, the two greatest genres of exploitation in the time period of the film (1979), X follows a group of young filmmakers hellbent on making the ultimate adult film in rural Texas. To do so, they rent the guest house of an elderly farmer and his wife, a woman who has issues well beyond her advanced years.

In many ways, the film being made (called The Farmer’s Daughter) mirrors the one we’re watching. The writer/director RJ (Owen Campbell) has hopes that his movie will also be celebrated as a great indie film that just happens to have sex as a part of it. While that seems highly unlikely based on what we see being shot, West’s film does include covert and overt messages about sexual agency, female sensuality, and issues of race, age, and class. This is hardly a message movie, but it’s also not devoid of themes that elevate X into something more than just a bloody good time.

The entire production is the brainchild of strip club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson), who gathers his attractive actors—his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth); his leading lady Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow); and the only male talent Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi)—as well as director RJ and his boom mic-operator girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). She doesn’t realize they’re shooting a dirty movie and is both confused and curious about the production, to the point where she decides she wants to be in the film as well.

Their van (with “Plowing Services” emblazoned on the side) arrives at the farm, owned by Howard (Stephen Ure, clearly in caked-on old-man makeup) and his wife Pearl (for spoiler reasons, I won’t mention who plays her, though some have). The shotgun-wielding Howard also doesn’t know these youngsters are shooting porn in his guest house and barn, but even just seeing the scantily-clad women is enough for him to know trouble is afoot, just not for the reasons he thinks. Over the course of several films, West has only gotten better at finding ways to create tension in obvious but still very effective ways (a crocodile gliding up to an unsuspecting swimmer) as well as less obvious ones, like transitioning from one sequence to another by editing back and forth between the end of one scene and the beginning of another several times.

The farmer warns his visitors not to disturb his wife because she isn’t well, and he’s not lying. I believe it’s Maxine who first meets Pearl, and the encounter is both unsettling and a true invasion of Maxine’s personal space by a woman who seems to crave affection from young, beautiful people. Watching Pearl and Howard is heartbreaking at times, since it’s clear she still has desire and needs in her life, and Howard is afraid his heart won’t be able to take any form of intimacy. So she turns outward, to strangers, and it’s when she is rejected that things take a turn. It’s at this point that the film goes from creepy to downright blood-soaked. X opens with the discovery of all of the bodies at the farm by Sheriff Dentler (James Gaylyn), so we already get a sense of the bodycount right off the bat (although the bodies are covered, so we aren’t sure who lives and dies). But we find out soon that even that count isn’t entirely accurate. West gives us an array of creative murders, but an even more interesting and unique set of motives. There are times when it seems like the filmmaker might go into something more supernatural, but he pulls back from that at just the right moment, managing to give us an end-of-film stinger I did not see coming. I’m not even sure I understand the significance of it, but it’s still a stunner.

I was tempted to mention a few highlight performances in X, but looking down the cast list, it’s difficult to spot a weak link in it. Mescudi gets some of the biggest laughs without telling any jokes, relying entirely on delivery, while Brittany Snow seems like she was shot out of a cannon, from her bleached-blonde look to her alpha-female personality; she knows she’s good at what she does and will never apologize for it.

Goth’s Maxine is certainly the curiosity of the film, and turns out to be the story’s real tragedy. She snorts too much coke and is so desperate to be famous that she lets Wayne talk her into leaving stripping to act in his first adult film. But it’s those old folks that you’ll remember the best. I’m not a fan of demonizing the elderly just because their bodies are wrinkled and they move a little slower, but what makes Pearl and Howard unique goes way beyond their age. It’s been announced that West will eventually make a prequel film about the Pearl character, and I can’t say I blame him. He leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and it’s impossible not to wonder about her origins. By staying with the horror genre fairly consistently (both in movies and television), West has become one of the true masters of horror of his generation, and delivers on nearly every front. You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, and along the way, you meet some truly fascinating characters on both sides of the pointy object.

The film is now playing theatrically, including on 35mm at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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