THE STORY – In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast soon find themselves in a desperate fight for their lives.
THE CAST – Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow & Scott Mescudi
THE TEAM – Ti West (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
By Josh Parham
Horror seems to always be in a state of reinvention that forces an audience to recalibrate their own reaction to the genre constantly. While many entries seemingly are all surface-level thrills and kills, recent history has shown a strong desire to showcase stories that have deeper thematic weight. Whether somberly introspective or flamboyantly violent, these films are always a breeding ground for intriguing commentary that divulge the profound anxieties of society. It can be quite a unique experience to witness a movie that attempts to bridge these two stylistically opposing tones while still mining at that acute critique. For the new film “X,” the results are fascinating if a tad tedious in execution.
Set in 1970s Texas, already a landscape primed for potential carnage, a rag-tag crew has formed to shoot a low-budget porno. Sleazy strip-club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson) is financing the production and employing Maxine (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lynne (Britany Snow), and Jackson (Kid Cudi) in starring roles. The director RJ (Owen Campbell) has artistic ambitions he hopes to infuse in such low material while his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) comes along to assist. Their filming location is on an isolated farmland owned by an elderly couple. As they sneak around to film, the dark aura of their environment slowly descends. The true intentions of these older individuals reveal themselves, and brutal consequences ensue in which this group must attempt to survive.
Ti West is very accomplished at creating vibrant worlds that feel modern in their sensibilities while also seeming connected to the slate of older horror films of the past. That’s certainly felt here, as the time period and region give off many intentional nods to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The allusions don’t stop there, and the production design and cinematography authentically articulate the grindhouse atmosphere, and the tension is successfully delivered. Even when said tension can feel forced at times, there is an artistry that can be appreciated from West. The kills indulge in the exuberant tenor that makes these sequences compelling, and the constant air of foreboding dread manages to keep one invested as the mystery unfolds.
Within West’s screenplay is an alluring exploration whose storytelling themes are quite provocative. The assemblage of a filmmaking crew is the foundation for a meta-conversation about the nature of the art form, particularly with RJ’s outbursts that describe his artistic inclinations, which would mirror any modern director. However, there is also a sincere message that runs throughout. The older couple is drawn to the sexual exploits of their young visitors, and this sets in motion much of the ensuing terror. What is so captivating about this notion is how one perceives such desires as old age sets in. How society views lust as a folly of youth meant to be abandoned and any other sort of indulgence is treated with disgust. Admittedly, the film does not always explore this topic with the clearest of objectives, and the waters can be muddied. At the same time, the story contains a more resonant observation beyond the glossy escapades, and this is highly admired.
Performances can run the gambit in films like these, but there are some riveting turns here. Goth takes most of the center stage, and she once again displays a magnetic quality that is completely engrossing (especially considering she’s being tasked with having to pull off a dual role). She perfectly captures the spirit of a heroine in this terrain while also exuding a sinister undercurrent that makes her transformation all the more gripping. It’s another example of what an absorbing actor Goth is with any project. The rest of the ensemble does an admirable job in their roles, though not much is asked of them. They all provide moments of effective levity, particularly felt in Snow’s bubbly yet capable persona. The only member who fails to impress is Cudi, saddled with a flat character while also lacking an individual sense of charm. Overall, it’s a fine ensemble that works well for the task at hand.
Not every element of “X” ends up being successful, as not all of its characters are well-defined, and some of its more complex messaging can become messy and disorganized. Still, at its core is an inviting caper that nourishes the baser appetites of the genre while also finding a gripping theme to scrutinize. The impressive direction and delightful performances, anchored by a terrific central turn from Goth, make this an enthralling horror entry that can satisfy the hunger for exciting spectacle and more sophisticated storytelling. It may be a slighter accomplishment for the latter, but it all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining endurance.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film delivers a compelling horror spectacle with great tension and a captivating tone. The storytelling manages to dive into more profound thematic commentary that is also interesting to explore. Mia Goth delivers a compelling and enticing performance. The overall filmmaking is finely crafted.
THE BAD – Some of its messaging can get muddled and disorganized. The supporting players are fun but also poorly defined.