Ti West’s ‘X’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

A troupe of would-be pornographers make a poor location choice in Ti West’s ’70s-set slasher film starring Jenna Ortega, Mia Goth and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi.

Think twice before flaunting your sexuality, kids: What seems to you like a healthy, happy expression of universal urges will be a painful reminder to others of their long-vanished youth. And some of those people may be made so sad they’ll carve you up into little pieces. That’s the moral of X, the latest feature from genre specialist Ti West: Set in rural Texas at the dawn of the VHS era, it watches as some youngsters set out to conquer the world of low-budget porn and instead find themselves fighting for their lives.

Benefitting from West’s knack for capturing period vibes and from an unusually engaging cast, the pic is meatier than the average slasher film — though Kid Cudi (aka Scott Mescudi) fans who come just because he’s in the ensemble should be aware that they’re in for a very gory ride.

X

The Bottom Line

A gory retro-thriller with an unusually engaging cast.

Release date: March 18 (A24)

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters)

Cast: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure

Director-Screenwriter: Ti West


Rated R,
1 hour 46 minutes

He plays Jackson, a self-assured Marine who served in Vietnam and who, by 1979, has become the sometime lover of a stripper named Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow). They and a few other youngsters have been recruited by 40something Wayne (Martin Henderson), who dreams of turning sex appeal into riches.

Believing that the home-video market will soon let no-budget pix reap Deep Throat-sized rewards, he has hired Bobby-Lynne and his own girlfriend, Maxine (Mia Goth), to play farmer’s daughters who enjoy the company of a stranded traveler played by Jackson. Aspiring indie auteur RJ (Owen Campbell) will direct, with RJ’s girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) holding the boom mike. (All other practicalities of filmmaking, like lighting, are ignored here.)

The Houstonites have located a farm outside town and arranged to rent one of its outbuildings for the shoot. But Wayne hasn’t revealed his intentions to the property’s owner, a withered old coot who greets all visitors with a wave of his shotgun. Howard (Stephen Ure) fought in the Great War and seems to have let himself go sometime mid-century. Both Ure and the much younger actress who plays his wife Pearl (let’s leave her name out of it for now) perform under substantial makeup, accentuating the withering effects of old age; we’re made to share the youngsters’ instinctive discomfort with the couple, though the movie also uses that revulsion in canny ways as things develop.

Pearl is a mystery at first — seen from a distance in a second-story window, then observing the nubile visitors from afar. Inviting Maxine into her dirty home for a glass of lemonade, she makes no secret of her envy. I used to be beautiful too, she tells the girl; it doesn’t last.

As we see more of the old couple’s yearnings, genre-savvy viewers may wonder if they have a locked attic where ritual sacrifices will temporarily allow them to suck the life force from unwitting travelers. Certainly, some cross-cutting with the plot of the in-progress sex film suggests as much. But X proves more reality-based and more poignant than that. Before the gore begins (and even mid-action), West seems to truly consider the pain of irretrievable youth, and feel for those whose final years are consumed by it. Then he starts killing people off.

Before that, moviegoers will enjoy plenty of nudity (not all of it the kind we expect) and some amusing complications regarding the relationship between public and private sexuality. What does it take to sit casually and watch your girlfriend writhe with pleasure as a very attractive man has sex with her? Why should it make any difference whether it’s being done on-camera or off? Does God care, and if so, what form will his judgment take? Snow and Goth in particular seem at ease with dialogue pitting prudes against libertines, making a case that has been made for generations, then largely forgotten by each generation as it ages into responsibility.

But lest this sound like a seminar on American mores, one should note the main ingredients of the film’s second half: pitchforks and firearms, gators and locked cellars. Bodies both alluring and repulsive. Old-school preachers, cowboy-hat policemen, and runaway teens. Blood, entrails and old pickup trucks. The end.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters)
Distributor: A24
Production company: Little Lamb
Cast: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure
Director-Screenwriter: Ti West
Producers: Ti West, Jacob Jaffke, Kevin Turen, Harrison Kreiss
Executive Producers: Sam Levinson, Ashley Levinson, Peter Phok, Scott Mescudi, Dennis Cummings, Karina Manashil
Director of photography: Eliot Rockett
Production designer: Tom Hammock
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Editors: David Kashevaroff, Ti West
Composers: Tyler Bates, Chelsea Wolfe
Casting directors: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy

Rated R, 1 hour 46 minutes

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