(4 stars out of 5)
X (2022) Directed by Ti West
The reminiscent anatomy of X is such a zealous and meticulous cloning of the genetic constitution of seventies exploitation cinema that it ventures to reformulate the archetypal parameters of the genre in an apt homage to cinema’s most libertine era by deconstructing the gross-out banalities and appealing idiosyncrasies of its practice, thus drawing as a result of its deconstructive application, a revalidation of the methods of exploitation filmmaking. Indeed, it is a tribute to what is most characteristic of American exploitation cinema, and therefore its raw cinematic jargon is that of a harsh provocation, an inciting exaltation of the aesthetically improper and its organic and consubstantial dependence on the vulgarly kinky and the viciously violent
X, as its monosyllabic title warns, is, to be more explicit with its synoptic generality, an ode to the most popular clichés of seventies exploitation cinema, i.e. pornography is included in this jubilant homage. X wants to be both an imitation of the myths of infamous cinema and similarly to be proudly stereotypical of its lustful pantomimes, mirages that brim with curiosities and grant it hypothetical objectives that ultimately, I believe, will be debated among the audience with the same impetus, cogency and significance as they would with the speculative density of art cinema.
Directed, written and edited by Ti West, this deliberately exploitative product is the horror film that has far more to tell us about the dichotomies that arise in defining the role that trashy cinema occupies within the fine line that separates the trivially exploitative from the artistically exploitative. I can think of no other filmmaker more adept at giving an alluring physicality to such tabloid-like conjecture than Ti West, the director most skilled at resolving evocative anachronisms. In X, the eighth film in his predominantly horror filmography, he brings back with a vivid, grainy, raw filmic physiognomy the now obsolete aesthetic mechanisms of low-budget filmmaking in the 1970s. Every optical, cinematographically stimulating element that can be found in this film is a magnetic formula that before, rather than unusual or bizarre as it is now appreciated, was ordinary, cheap and anti-aesthetic.
The perceptibility that West possesses as a filmmaker fanatic of the rough formalities of the past is one of his greatest and most remarkable qualities, and many directors would like to have the ability to revitalize the antiquated in a space and in a temporality improper to its forms. Here, with uncompromising spirit, director Ti West proposes as the primary idea of this production, to materialize a kind of challenge, in which everything internally fictitious of the story as well as the external part of it, pretends to philosophize about cultural questions that manage to involve us, the audience, to also be part of this challenge in which he tenaciously seeks to juxtapose complex conundrums, varied questions that end up converging in a sturdy dynamic that laboriously aims to give meaning to its exploitative system within the artistic spectrum.
Can anything artistic be drawn from the derogatory provocation of exploitative material? Ti West’s X doesn’t quite manage to answer its rambunctious but absorbing questions, though it does manage to stimulate renewed positions on exploitation cinema and the inherent prejudices it engenders in audiences most susceptible to its thematic asperities. As a drastic shift in perspective towards the particular genres it pays tribute to, X is exploitation cinema with too many intellectual principles to be considered part of the category stigmatized as trivial exploitation cinema, it is even too organized with its aesthetic aims to be just another horror film in the bunch. This sizzling, brutal and gruesome narrative that celebrates the classics of American exploitation cinema is productively challenging in its proposals to the extent of elevating its gratuitous violent vehemence to the status of thought-provoking cinema.
The formula is gloriously authentic to flesh out the past with grotesque vividness. Ti West takes us through the hot, rustic Texas settings that instantly commemorate the acrid 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the quintessential ’70s American exploitation flick. But there is a curious fact within the formula of aesthetic evocation of 70’s films, it is not a tribute that follows to the letter the ordinariness of copying a similar narrative, but on the contrary takes only the iconic qualities as the structure for its singular story. X is as much a glorification of the raunchy and cheap, but crudely effective, styles of exploitative proto slasher horror film storytelling as it is astutely a celebration of the rough and scratchy physiognomy of the formal.
There are not one or two but recurrent times when the mise-en-scène in conjunction with the camera angles conjure exactly the same textures as a low-budget film from the 1970s. Not since Rob Zombie’s 2005 film The Devil’s Rejects have I seen a film so deliberately anachronistic in its forms and in its application so reminiscent of such a singular era as the 70’s was for cinema. X seems to be the horror film that does what no other contemporary slasher film has managed to do, enter into consciousness with obsolete configurations and revive them not with intentions of getting something novel out of them but for revisionist purposes.
The filmmakers of X know that orchestrating bizarre zooms, camera displacements designed to be tantalizingly explicit, and scratchy photography comprise the paraphernalia of low-budget 70’s cinema and not that of digital contemporaneity. Yet they use both facets with an inventive formal multiplicity, a synchronicity of cinematic paradoxes that formulate, in synthesis, an engaging journey through the immoralities of exploitative cinema with an unabashed sense of obscene humor and ferocious violence that questions its own ontology.
So far the only thing explored about X is its intellectual and exclusively technical dimensions, although that doesn’t mean it’s not a tremendously entertaining experience. It is a rhythmically sequential horror film, starting with the richness of its dramatic superimpositions, which concentrate a large percentage of its dialectical rigor. The plot is simple, considering that it follows a direction adapted to slasher horror film storytelling models, however the narrative system is not what is important per se, but what unfolds within it. Juxtaposition after juxtaposition is what transpires, moral conflicts between characters, cultural questions, and lethal ambitions, but everything perennially remains in a territory of collision between antithetical sides.
In 1979 in the United States, Texas the lush and ambitious pornographic actress Maxine played with over-the-top sensuality by Mia Goth, along with her boyfriend Wayne played by a ridiculously jocular Martin Henderson, the indie film director RJ played by Owen Campbell, his girlfriend Lorraine played by Jenna Ortega, and actors Bobby Lynne played with unbridled horniness by Brittany Snow and Jackson Hole played by a suggestively virile Scott Mescudi, prepare to travel to a private farm in order to use it as a set to shoot a straight-to-home adult film called “The Farmer’s Daughters.” Upon arrival they are greeted by the owner Howard, a decrepit old man who asks for discretion during their stay for the health of his wife Pearl, who spends most of the day cooped up at home.
I don’t think you need to be a slasher film connoisseur to know what direction this plot will take. In deep, but macabre, calm the film begins in a frame within a frame where we see the scene of a horrific crime, two typical police officers reviewing the barbarous scene descend into a smelly, putrid dark basement where they are sure to encounter the worst of the gruesome carnage, yet we don’t see it. Seconds later, we are in a merry, though ominous, youthful energy where the characters are introduced into the story; we already know that they are the corpses that those cops witnessed in the savage crime, so the film makes a leap in time but in reverse, leaving us with the events that originated that massacre, 24 hours earlier to be more exact.
The introductory imagery is quite insightful for a slasher, Ti West’s writing already tells us that our lively and horny protagonists will suffer a tragedy and yet with the end revealed, the plot sucks us in with its magnetic exploitation film disguise until it takes us through all its sordid passages no matter how much predictability pervades the experience. Precisely, this is a slasher aware of the flawed norms of slasher filmmaking, it is not meta-narrative like Scream nor does it attempt to be a slasher with a clever story, that would be heavily contradictory to its teleological senses. What makes X a distinctive film despite following in the same vein as the films to which it honors, is the character component and the unsettling drama that surrounds them.
The antagonist role of each character is the most specific detail to highlight, each character has another character that contradicts him, not necessarily as an anti-thesis but as an element that questions him, whether it is his way of thinking, acting or simply existing. An enlightening explanation of this can be descriptively examined in the diptych performance of Mia Goth, who has the bravura to play two complex characters in the same film. Goth plays not only the young and hauntingly beautiful Maxine, but also the demented and cadaverous old woman Pearl. The most impressive thing about this parallel performance is the eerie connection, or rather the similarities between the two. On the one hand, the melancholic Pearl longs for the youth of her past, envies the beauty of Maxine, whom she sees with obsessive and perverse eyes, but also longs for her promiscuous sexuality.
Yet the most thoughtful affinity in this sickly jealousy that the older woman suffers at the sight of the young girl’s statuesque attractiveness is particularly because the former is mirrored in the latter; in a silent, menacing scene we see Pearl show Maxine a picture of herself as a young woman in which we can notice a huge physical resemblance between the two. That unlocks what is essential in the narrative to expand the themes in every corner of its exploitative structure. On the side of those characters, the poignant and philosophical debate arises about the passing of time, how fleeting youth is and how we anxiously yearn to regain it when it has vanished and turned into wrinkles forever. Of course we must always keep in mind the cinematic realm we are in, only then can we really delve into those aspects with a more intellectual proclivity. This film is still exploitation cinema, no matter how meditative its universal questions are, the filmic exercise remains a faithful homage to exploitation cinema and maintains that idealism with stubborn enthusiasm. For that very reason, I recommend constantly being aware of its primary essence before venturing into its narrative depth.
Pearl and Maxine are the main characters of X, but that’s not all, as you need to know, this film gives each of its characters incompatibilities. The other equally illustrative case would be the character played by Jenna Ortega, who basically plays the seemingly innocent, observant and timid character among the most extroverted and shamelessly lewd. I’m still not entirely convinced of Jenna Ortega’s acting potential, yet here she does something meritorious and exceptional, her performance helps intensify that ubiquitous dialectic I’m talking about so much. Ortega delivers an acting hybridization between maximalist and minimalist, again evoking the dichotomous personality of the film, but part of that peculiarity is in the way her character questions the polyamorous philosophy of porn actors. Not only does she question inquisitively but she ends up convincing herself of the modus vivendi of these people; that’s the most seductive thing about these prominent thematic features, she doesn’t look for judgments so much as neutralize them. The discussion that X suggests about sexuality can be seen as something as typical of the sexual revolution in the 70’s as it is of the contemporary era, as the sometimes indecipherable question about the difference between sex and love. Controversial issues such as these emerge in the plot thanks to those confrontational mannerisms, which give a quality of cultural awareness to subjects so politically incorrect for some and correct for others.
Ultimately, the exploitative world of X creates an inexhaustible kaleidoscope of intricate patterns of thought that once again take us to a territory of clash, of antagonism, the ethos of the 70’s in collision with that of contemporary times. It fills me with bliss to know that there is a slasher horror film capable of transporting me to an existentialist milieu through its vicious habits. X is irrefutable proof that even the wildest or stupidest exploitation cinema can be worth something more than mere sensationalism, although it also requires that we can make these sleazy textures translucent in order to discover their nuances and dissect them. In exploitation cinema there is everything from pure trash to interesting trash, great masterpieces and influential films, and I sense that Ti West strives to eliminate the biased stigmas attached to the genre with his ability to penetrate the gross without losing the aesthetic or thematic rationality, managing to give substance to the stereotypical excesses of exploitative cinema. And here at least, he successfully sustains his thesis.