Ti West is a filmmaker who I have been rooting for for years, despite not being moved either way by any of his movies. I’ve always appreciated the craft of The House of the Devil, even if it only served to remind me of a hundred other, superior movies from which it drew inspiration. The Innkeepers goes down smooth and features great performances, but nothing happens. Like, at all. The Sacrament was always my favorite, but it pales considerably in comparison to the real life events it’s not-so-loosely based on (and it fucks up the found footage framing device — a cardinal sin in my degenerate book of film rules that no one should listen to anyway). He’s made a few others that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I keep promising myself I will. Now that I’ve seen X, I plan to move them to the front of the line.
With X, West has finally managed to marry his excellent sense of craft to a compelling plot, rich with thematic depth, thoughtful characters, and gallons of blood splashed across plenty of titties and dicks. It’s totally aggro, and it’s a damn good time at the movies, but it also has an undercurrent of sweetness and a strong anti-prudishness sentiment that puts it into a class all its own. Much like his previous work, the tone and style are derivative of the genre work of the ’70s and ’80s (in the best of ways), but this time around there appears to be more thought behind the homage. The House of the Devil could have easily been passed off as an older film (it’s a recreation, not a deconstruction), while X almost definitely could not. But it’s not a deconstruction, per se. Its refreshing lack of prudishness and its wholesale rejection of final girl tropes seem to frame it as a response to our current trend of constant artistic re-litigation of FUCKING EVERYTHING, wrapped in the clothes of Just Before Dawn or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
This is almost definitely a projection, but the material supports this notion. X follows a trio of adult film actors (Mia Goth, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi), their shady producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), and their cameraman/director, RJ (Owen Campbell), as they set off to make the adult film to change all adult films. It’ll have fucking, but it’s also going to be artistic. RJ likens his cinematic goals to those of French cinema (note: X takes place in 1979). He’s brought along his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) to help with sound, and even though both pretend to be open minded about the work they’re doing, a bit of tension immediately starts brewing. RJ didn’t tell Lorraine what kind of movie they’d be making, just as producer Wayne didn’t tell the elderly owners of the rented shooting location that there would be multiple people joining him, and all would be having sex on film.
Wayne is framed as a real huckster, but his views on sex and sexuality are as progressive as they come (even if he himself frames them with a bit of misogyny), leading to a real mixed bag of emotions for RJ and Lorraine, both of whom fall under Wayne’s sway in different ways. Meanwhile, the elderly property owners are having their own reckoning, brought on partially by their new lodgers, as well as by time itself.
The opening scene, which occurs 24 hours after the film itself, lets us know that some serious carnage is about to occur, but who kills and why they do it is a mystery best left unspoiled. But do know this: X is insanely violent, unabashedly horny, and gleefully so on both counts. Fuuuuuck to the yes! More movies like this, please.
Much like West’s previous work, the pacing takes a bit of time to get up to speed, but for the first time in my memory, it wasn’t a chore to get through. The events unspool at a masterfully managed pace, using the mystery in conjunction with the promise of the opening scene as a dangling carrot to keep the audience engaged. Add to that a strong thematic structure (which would be a bit spoilery to discuss beyond my previous anti-prude comments), and a collection of truly great performances, and it all comes together in a transcendently shocking, fun package.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the performances are some of the best of recent memory. Henderson, now aged beyond the hunk status which was unjustly foisted upon him back in the day with stuff like Torque and The Ring, plays such an endearing scumbag, showcasing an acting talent that I would love to see more of in the future. Note, I’m not saying he’s not a hunk — dude is jacked — but that he’s a good enough actor that he shouldn’t need to be ascribed a “type.” Brittany Snow gets to use all of her powers here. She sings, she acts, and she looks fantastic doing it. This isn’t to say she’s just being a pretty face either. Her Bobby-Lynne is a complete character, and perhaps my favorite in the whole movie. Kid Cudi is damn good as the cocky Jackson, making the jump from musician to actor flawlessly, when so many Ushers — I mean others — fail to do the same. Jenna Ortega, scream Queen 2022, takes the typically virginal slasher role and turns it on its ear, supported by the performance of Owen Campbell as a sort of foil to her arc. It’s a fantastic ensemble. Everybody nails it.
But Mia Goth gets her own paragraph. Ms. Goth seems like such a dyed in the wool weirdo that one would expect her often physical performances to be impenetrable, but this is simply never the case. She is a commanding presence even when not the focal point of a scene. What she is tasked with here, and what she gets out of it, must be seen to be believed. Few contemporary actresses seem as unconcerned with image as she is, and that lack of concern is writ large in X. You won’t believe it until you do.
So my apologies to Mr. West, whose films I have said unkind things about in the past. Being fully honest, the worst I can say is that they weren’t for me, and the best I can say is something I’ve said one hundred times prior: I’m going to have to give them a rewatch. I owe them this much, because the horror world seems to see something in them that I was never able to grasp. Having seen X, which is not just West’s best, but also one of the best movies of 2022 so far, I think I may be ready to see them all from a fresh angle.
I was lucky enough to see X with a crowd, and I implore you to do the same. This killer slasher is a wild party with a lot on its mind, and to miss it would be to deny yourself one of the best horror flicks of recent memory. The title is a reference to the storied “X-factor” required to be a movie star, and the movie itself is an example of said X-factor being employed to maximum effect. It’s a bloody good time.
Directed by Ti West
Written by Ti West
Starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi
Rated R, 105 minutes