Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, & James Gaylyn.
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Ti West has been consistently making interesting films since his directorial debut, and the more mature he gets as a filmmaker, the more he dives into genre films that not only entertain and horrify but also try to make important statements about contemporary American life. X is, on the surface, a thrilling mixture consisting of pornography filmmaking and horror films, though beneath the surface there are so many compelling themes that connect 1979 and 2022/beyond.
West’s film follows a group of independent filmmakers setting out to make the next Debbie Does Dallas with producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) hoping they’ll create the next low-budget porn sensation. Wayne’s enlisted his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), along with a few others, and rented them a cabin in rural Texas where they’ll shoot the movie. Once they arrive at their set, it’s clear Wayne didn’t tell the hosts why they’ve come to the property. The hosts, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth), soon discover what the pornographers are up to, then the blood and the guts start to splatter.
With X, West distills the historical reading of slasher films as unconsciously expressing conservative values—the logic that people, especially young people, in slasher films who do drugs and have sex outside of marriage are the ones who die—into a slasher that touches on a number of interconnected social, sexual, and political themes resonant in the late 1970s and today. The film interrogates how America’s been divided for half a century, if not longer, by capitalism and religion, and, most importantly, how they’ve negatively affected Americans’ sociopolitical understanding and treatment of sexuality.
There’s a boatload of context for the temporal setting of Ti West’s film landing in 1979. One year prior in 1978, Debbie Does Dallas was released. The dialogue from Wayne as the porno film crew travel to their intended set indicates that the success of Debbie is one major reason why Wayne wants to get into the porn business rather than stick to strip clubs. The main significance of West’s film being set in 1979 is that this was a particular time when pornography was a scapegoat on which all sorts of different groups laid the blame for violence against women. Pornography has long been linked to violence against women by both conservative Americans and some feminist groups. There was an Anti-Porn March in Times Square during October of 1979, organised by Women Against Pornography (the original WAP before Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion); 5,000 people attended the march. American serial killer Ted Bundy was convincted in 1979 and sentenced to death in Florida, eventually blaming pornography for serial murder. Despite negative connections drawn between violence and pornography, the Williams Committee (a.k.a the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in the United Kingdom) stated in 1979: “Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can find case after case of sex crimes and murder without any hint at all that pornography was present in the background.”
All of these events give deeper context to West setting his film in 1979. In direct relation to X itself, ’79 is also the year John Wayne died, and, intentionally or not, West frames one shot in a doorway to the rental cabin the pornographers stay in like a famous, endlessly-recreated doorway shot in The Searchers starring Wayne. For America’s Republicans, John Wayne’s death was just another sign, in their minds, that America was dying, or at the very least losing its supposed sheen; there was one less ‘true American’ hero to idolise. West giving homage to a John Wayne film while placing a pornographer in the space where Wayne stood in the shot is fantastic, subtle image of the changing face of America’s social and political values via images from the silver screen.
One of the more important aspects of X is the way West compares horror movies with pornography. Horror, like pornography, created a sociopolitical uproar in America during the 1970s and 1980s. Just the name of West’s film connects horror and pornography in an important way. Since 1970, the X rating has largely been equated with pornography due to the rating not being trademarked and so pornographers typically put the X label on their own films, however, plenty of horror films have been rated X; even mainstream films like Midnight Cowboy or A Clockwork Orange were released despite such a rating. The X rating in cinema further joins sex and death in a philosophical sense, too.
Susan Sontag wrote: “What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn‘t sex but death.” We see sex and death joined through the imagery in X at several points. In one scene, Pearl kills cameraman RJ while on top of him, straddling his lap, but instead of riding him sexually—as she watched Maxine do earlier on film in the barn—she’s stabbing him to death ecstatically, revelling in the blood splatter on her and the van’s headlights like an actress might do onscreen for her co-star’s cumshot. Another scene depicts bloody murder followed by Pearl and her husband having sex for the first time in who knows how long, as if the killing was foreplay. In a later scene when Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) is in the basement, she discovers a brutalised man with his wrists bound to the ceiling: he’s obviously been tortured and killed, but his pants are also down, his penis exposed, suggesting sex and death were intertwined at some point, though it’s unclear if it was Pearl or Howard, or both of them, who did it. A great finish to the sex-death theme is the Sheriff’s final line after finding RJ’s camera following the massacre at Pearl and Howard’s house, suggesting the footage is “one goddamn fucked up horror picture” rather than the pornographic film it is in reality.
“One man’s pornography is another man’s theology.”
Another reason pornography and horror were so threatening to many is that the production of a lot of porn and horror films alike at the time were low budget, indie projects going against the typical capitalist industry processes of filmmaking, and capitalism is American’s second beloved religion after Christianity. Porn and horror were more accessible genres to working class filmmakers and actors. We hear RJ (Owen Campbell) talk about how to “disguise the low budget” of a film with editing, and how the cabin the crew are renting will add “production value.” Whereas RJ’s passionate about film, Wayne just doesn’t want to be part of the working class and he’s using porno as a hopeful way to get ahead of a growing market. He tells Bobby-Lynne: “I don‘t wanna have to wear a hard hat to make a living.” Wayne has a capitalistic mindset. He later mentions “home video” and wanting to be on the leading edge of the trend to make money. For Wayne, this new porno he’s shooting is simply a way to diversify his portfolio. Still, he does recognise that doing things outside of the typical Hollywood system is a form of Marxist filmmaking, taking the means of production away from the big studios and filmmakers with all the capital to make what films they want: “We don‘t need Hollywood. These types of pictures turn regular folks into stars. We‘re gonna do it all ourselves.” He even recognises that this type of low-budget porn filmmaking has the ability to “finally level the playing field for people like us,” in which “people like us” means the working class.
The capitalism involved in film forms the entire foundation of X, from the setup of the film’s plot to the motivation of its characters. The most horrific and tragic elements of X lie within Pearl, whose life and body have been ravaged by the entertainment industry’s capitalist ideology. That ideology is why she goes on a rampage against the pornographers. The capitalistic side of film is based on beauty and youth, and the horror genre’s predilection for young, beautiful bodies being maimed and killed in an endless variety of ways is already a kind of comment on how the entertainment industry chews up and spits out what’s left of the young, beautiful people it exploits. Pearl represents someone who’s been chewed up and spit out by the entertainment industry just from the allure of wanting to be a young, beautiful star, and the resentment of not having lived that life—a life she believes someone like Maxine is currently living—pushes her into a violent rage.
Pearl’s psychopathy circles back to a recurring mention earlier in X: The American Dream. In West’s film, it’s not a singular American Dream for all people, it’s a massive land of individual American dreams, often divided by class. Maxine says that her American dream is not unreasonable, and Bobby-Lynne also asks “What‘s your American dream?” indicating that there’s more than one version. Pearl’s American dream was to be a star, and it didn’t happen, so her rage is at America itself for not living up to its end of her dream. This also connects back to the religious presence in X, in that 20th-century America became obsessed with celebrity as a kind of third religion after Christianity and capitalism. This is best noticed in a late scene when Maxine yells, at the same time as the evangelical preacher on TV (who is revealed as her father soon afterwards): “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” While this can be seen as an affirmation of wanting a better life, here it’s presented as two sides of American spirituality in the 20th century, fame and Christianity, two American dreams. Since it’s Maxine v. her father here, too, it illustrates the sociopolitical divide conservatives created in America due to their sexual politics. That divide finds perfect representation in the single figure of Pearl (fittingly played by Goth, as an uncanny double).
A brief bit of Pearl’s queerness in X shows how Christianity’s sexual politics divides people, not just households. Pearl openly says she doesn’t “like blondes” to her husband, in spite of her clear religiosity, and touches Maxine sexually on a couple different occasions even though she later calls Maxine, in decidedly religious language, a “deviant little whore.” Here, we see that while Pearl’s murderous hatred does come at least partly from her American dreams not panning out, she’s equally, if not more, driven by the same religious beliefs that have prevented her from enjoying a life of freedom and sexuality. Like Bobby-Lynne says to Pearl: “It ain‘t my fault you didn‘t live the life you wanted.” But Pearl blames Bobby-Lynne and everyone like her anyway, probably because she and Howard see them as “Bohemian” and believe, like Maxine’s preacher father, that America is an “increasingly secular society” coming to resemble “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Just as much as X shows the way capitalism divides the classes in America even amongst filmmakers, the film shows how Christianity has cleaved America so thoroughly that not only are people divided amongst each other as a whole, or as classes, people are divided amongst themselves as individuals, denying their own wants, needs, and dreams, like Pearl, to the point of abject horror.
“Pornography, to me, is no different from war films or propaganda films in that
it tries to make the visceral, horrific, or transgressive elements
of life consumable.”
X is set during an age of emerging neoliberalism, yet it’s so resonant with 2023 and the issues with which America’s still grappling concerning sexuality. West’s film shows how while we believe things have changed so much there are old prejudices and attitudes that still remain strong. Today, the evangelicals and the Republicans bemoan the internet, OnlyFans, and new advents in the world of pornography as the latest harbingers of a dying world, though they cheer on the American military as it drone-bombs families on the other side of the world, or defend Israel from any form of negative criticism while the Israel Defence Forces murder Palestinians under the guide of national security; the list, unfortunately, goes on. It’s just like all those people who talk about a direct link between pornography and violence who fail to consider the actual violence itself, treating it as just another statistic in their anti-sex crusade against porn. As Ursula K. Le Guin noted: “The pornography of violence of course far exceeds, in volume and general acceptance, sexual pornography, in this Puritan land of ours.”
Within X is a commentary about how we’re often obscured to the horrors of violence and preoccupied by sex, just as the film industry and their ratings are, often treating a bit of a woman’s nipple or a male penis as more damaging to the youth of America than seeing heads get crushed or stabbed or burned; even the news media is afraid to touch upon sexuality while having no problem blasting images of the Middle East getting bombed by American troops or gruesome reports on school shootings in the U.S. Most of all, West’s film posits that neither sex nor violence in film are as damaging as the capitalistic and religious forces that have created more real-life, physical violence than the entertainment industry ever could.
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