“Just when you think you’re out of the slaughterhouse…” a Conway Twitty lookalike says, as the bus that he’s driving — which is filled with an adult film crew — passes a cow accidentally T-boned by a combine tractor. Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the horror film legacy is no exception. X, the latest in the Lonestar State’s lineage of cinematic sadism, dissects the meaning of desire and takes the ideas of exploitation, intimacy, and the body to the most atomic level.
Ti West’s movie, distributed by A24, has already risen through the ranks of horror: it is easily one of the best films of 2022 and one of the best horror films of all time. It stars Kid Cudi, Brittany Snow, and Mia Goth as the cast and crew of an adult film titled “The Farmer’s Daughter.” In rural Houston, where the only available TV station is a televangelist sermon on repeat, the gang takes up temporary residence in a guest house on an elderly couple’s property. The crew attempts to create one of the best adult films of all time, only to face a wrath none of them expected.
We watch Maxine (Goth) fight for the life she wants. Her boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), producer of “The Farmer’s Daughter”, is obviously very proud of his young girlfriend, and we find out in passing that he left his wife for the 20-something Maxine. Their relationship is the literal interpretation of a power imbalance: Wayne’s desire for youth and beauty, and Maxine’s willingness to offer that to him — interlaced with her need for fame and recognition — acts as blatant commentary on the nature of desire under capitalism. While Maxine and Bobby-Lynne (Snow) are more than willing to take turns in front of the camera, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), girlfriend of the film’s director RJ (Owen Campbell), is apprehensive. Eventually, she asks if she can have a scene after spending the day helping RJ shoot the film.
Meanwhile, in the main house, the elderly couple Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl live in a completely sexless marriage. Both are older and ailing: Howard’s heart is failing, and Pearl has fragile bones and the beginning of dementia. However, this doesn’t stop her from wanting to feel desired — even objectified — by her husband, who has long since forgone any intimacy with her. Jealousy arouses Pearl into a rage, and she eventually begins to kill the youths, believing they are tempting Howard and are the source of her inability to be with her husband.
X places itself within the Golden Age of Porn (1969–1984) with a direct mention of the iconic Debbie Does Dallas. Released in 1978, directed by Jim Clark, and starring Bambi Woods, the adult film is about a cheerleader raising money to try out for the Texas Cowgirls. Debbie Does Dallas’ damsel in distress narrative is taken to the extreme, but the fact remains that Debbie and Maxine’s characters aren’t so different, as they both rely on older men to help them step into their future.
X’s Jackson (Kid Cudi) mentions that he’s a former Marine who served on two South Vietnam tours and ended up in the adult film industry when he returned. Howard tolerates him because they both served. While portrayed differently, his is a secondary story about “selling your body” and the narrative presented by puritanical American society: that adult films and sex work are reprehensible and immoral, but the use of soldiers’ bodies for war is to be praised.
The body and its politics become the film’s nucleus throughout the film. Unlike traditional horror films — where the assailant of women with a sexual agency is usually a man — X revolves around an older woman pining for her youth and her husband.
The film refuses to follow the “final girl” blueprint that Hitchcock, Hooper, and others had initially laid out. While his horror predecessors often used a woman’s sexuality against her and her vanity as the catalyst for destruction, West tells a different story, allowing Maxine’s ambition to make her the survivor. Whereas “pure” Lorraine’s relationship with Maxine is cemented in the sense of jealousy, there is an element of queer admiration that presents as self-righteousness. There is an element of romance when Bobby-Lynne and Maxine give Lorraine a makeover, and we see the three women bonding for a brief moment before RJ begins the rift that destroys the group by refusing to accept Lorraine exploring her sexuality, which follows a little more closely in the tradition of horror films. In the brief moment before the filming begins, Lorraine removes her crucifix, rejecting the traditional moral values dictated by Christianity.
The movie’s exploration of desirability, sex, and age is deepened when the audience realizes Goth is playing both Maxine and Pearl. The choice to cast her as both the victim and oppressor speaks volumes about the complexities of femininity.
“I will not live a life I do not deserve,” Maxine says multiple times throughout the film, insinuating that anything other than riches and fame is beneath her. Though Maxine is dating the producer, there isn’t an explicit scene in which we see the pair exchange romantic words or promises of a long future. Their coldness and matter-of-fact behavior toward each other prove their relationship is purely transactional. Maxine’s desires are on the way to being fulfilled but, though it’s clear she is capable of creating her future, she can’t strike out on her own. In late 1970s America, women were still beholden to men, needing their patronage and chaperoning to climb the professional ladder. Within X, there is no escape from the carousel of performance: everyone has a role to play that — by design of existence — they can’t escape from.