Befitting an industry pushed to the brink of peril multiple times in the past few years, 2022 has seen the release of multiple films that address the magic of cinema itself—though whether that’s traditionally heartwarming, crowd-delighting magic or some darker strain is sometimes left admirably unclear. Steven Spielberg’s origin story The Fabelmans is surprisingly ambivalent about what it means to wield the power of cinema—to reshape the messiness of reality with technical skill. Babylon is intoxicated by the power cinema has to create immortality as it (sometimes literally) kills the people who try to tame it. (Empire of Light meanwhile, is only ambiguous, in the sense that how the power of cinema is supposed to fit into its muddled story remains confusing right up through the unearned sentiment of its ending.) But the most unexpectedly charming and complicated of this year’s Movies About Movies is a gnarly slasher about a bunch of amateur porn stars: Ti West’s X.
As a star-spangled super-chyron informs us early on, the year is 1979. Wayne (Martin Henderson) is convinced he can make some money on a DIY sex movie starring his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), who’s desperate for stardom; director R.J. (Owen Campbell) assures them he can make it into art, too. Along with performers Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi), and R.J.’s quiet girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the group heads out to a farm in Texas, where they’ve rented a guest house from an elderly couple. As signaled in the opening scene, a bloodbath eventually ensues.
West made a name for himself with long-build horror, and X does spend a lot of time with these characters before the Texas Chain Saw portion of the evening kicks in. West makes the characters likable without sanding off their rougher edges, and though most of them are hoping for some combination of money and fame, their, ah, group project has a sweet sense of camaraderie: R.J. enthuses about using some avant-garde techniques, Bobby-Lynne playfully makes a camera-placement suggestion and meek “church mouse” Lorraine finds the combination of cameras and sexual freedom surprisingly enticing. The transition to VHS is just around the corner, as invisible to this crew as it was to the hopeful makeshift family depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. (This isn’t the year’s only Movie About Movies via Boogie Nights; Babylon steals from it quite brazenly.)
But there are currents of desperation underneath the good vibes—or alongside them, in a split-screen sequence where the group relaxes listening to Bobby-Lynne singing “Landslide” (accompanied by Jackson on guitar), and West simultaneously shows Pearl, the old woman who lives on the farm, in front of her mirror, her dresser littered with old makeup canisters. Pearl is also played by Mia Goth in old-age makeup, as a distorted mirror for Maxine, the hungriest and most driven of the pornographers. Pearl is responsible for much of the carnage that follows, but contrary to some readings of the film, she’s not there to be a repulsive gross-out hag. West turns to her in the film’s loveliest, most reflective moment; it may not be subtle that we see her as Snow sings “even children get older / And I’m getting older too,” but damned if the juxtaposition of young people performing bittersweetness (however sincerely) with an older person feeling it in her bones doesn’t hit home (or at least makes a strong case against Pearl as a cartoonish grotesque).
Moreover, Pearl’s violence has pathos. She’s lashing out against bodies that won’t do what she wants: Those belonging to the younger people, who don’t see her as a sexual object, and her own, which has gradually betrayed her youthful promise. The “kills” in X are satisfying in those gorehound terms: Gnarly, flinch-inducing and even, sometimes, grimly funny—an adroit riff on the horror trope of flipping the slasher into a de facto hero. That the younger characters in X aren’t mindless murder fodder complicates the movie’s skillfulness within its genre. Are we rooting for how we see ourselves in our mind’s movie theater, or what we don’t want to admit we’ll become?
West and Goth further explore the older character’s psychology in Pearl, a 1918-set origin story of sorts that they shot back-to-back with X and released six months later. Pearl feels a little half-baked in ways that X does not; it’s not one of the very best movies of the year. It is, however, quite good—and unmistakably of this year, in its Imitation Technicolor depiction of movie love and pandemic loneliness, all accomplished while turning X into a retroactive franchise. Pearl stares up at the silent movie-house screen with a feverish wonder and yearning; like Sammy Fabelman goggling in awe at that Cecil B. DeMille trainwreck, she’s absorbing just as much destructive power as cinematic fairy dust.
By 1979, that magic has turned to the genuine dust atop her makeup—and Pearl’s Final Girl, of course, looks just like her. X itself is a cracked mirror, reflecting back so much that genre fans love—sex, violence, thrills, menacing red lighting, people getting eaten by alligators—shimmering with the bittersweet knowledge of our own impermanence. What we love about movies, what inspires us, what we dream about: None of it lasts. Yet still we root for Maxine to outrun it, and as far as we can see, she wins. (At least until we see whatever happens in MaXXXine, the trilogy-capper West and Goth are making; their insta-franchise enthusiasm gives content churn a good name.) Most of the characters in X think they’re making a sex movie. They find out, too late, that they’re actually stuck in a horror movie.
Don’t we all?
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.