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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'MaXXXine': A Stylish, Underwhelming Finale for Ti West's X Trilogy

With his film X, Ti West delivered a slasher that doubled as an ode to 70s B-movies and independent filmmaking. At the end of this film, viewers were surprised to see a teaser trailer for Pearl, a prequel to the film that took influence from technicolor films of the 50s and 60s, notably The Wizard of Oz and the films of Douglas Sirk. At the end of that film, viewers were once again surprised to see a teaser for West’s next film in the series, MaXXXine, a direct sequel to X set in the 1980s. The promise of a third film in the X series delighted fans of the first two films, with many curious to see what West had in store for audiences. The answer is a tribute to 80s horror, namely the video nasties of the era, and further commentary on censorship, religion, and society’s relationship to cinema. In terms of style, West delivers, using specific tricks, techniques, and details to capture the 80s while blending it with his own style. However, MaXXXine ends up feeling like a step down from the previous films in the X series, as it feels like West has a lot to say, but doesn’t fully know how to say it. There are seeds of interesting themes all throughout the film, but they aren’t given much room to grow, leading them to feel less substantial than they could have been. MaXXXine is a classic case of style over substance, but while it may falter in its larger commentary, it makes up for it a bit with its campy vibe, gruesome violence, and a great central performance from its star, Mia Goth.

Six years after the events of X, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) has moved to Hollywood to continue her quest to be a major star. While she has become a big name in the world of adult entertainment, she has her sights set on crossing over into mainstream cinema. She finally gets her big break in the form of a horror film called The Puritan II, where she is set to play the lead. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose in Los Angeles, killing young starlets and branding them with Satanic symbols. The victims all seem to be connected to Maxine in one way or another, and she soon finds herself in danger of her dark past being revealed by a mysterious figure. This leads Maxine to figure out who is after her in an effort to save herself, and to continue her quest for fame. 

The one thing I can say that Ti West does well across all of the films in the X series is play into the varying stylistic influences each of them have. There is an element of pastiche to each film, but the specific films and styles he is trying to evoke always mesh well with the story he is telling. With MaXXXine, he harkens back to the VHS era of entertainment, as well as some of the more gory horror films of the 80s. It helps give the film a campy feel, as if we are watching something from that time, and uses some graphic, almost over-the-top violence that might be found in an 80s slasher film. Much like the other two films in the series, these homages come in waves, allowing the film to feel like its own thing while proudly wearing its influences on its sleeve. Admittedly, this might come across a little heavy-handed for some, but I personally like what he does to make this film feel like I’m watching something akin to a video nasty from the 80s.

While it has plenty of style, it doesn’t have much going on below the surface, which is a shame given that the themes and ideas the film sets up are pretty rich. I wouldn’t say that any of the X movies are particularly deep, but at least X and Pearl flesh out some of their ideas a bit, and give some food for thought at the very least. Given that the end of X introduces a plot point regarding Maxine’s religious past, I was curious to see how MaXXXine would potentially handle this. At first, it seems like the film will dig into it a bit, as it opens with a home video of a younger Maxine talking about how she’s going to be a star like her father, who is a televangelist. We then see a montage over the opening credits featuring news coverage of Christian protesters picketing Hollywood studios over supposed obscene content, as well as various stories related to the Satanic panic. Based on this, it appears that the film will greatly focus on this throughout, but it doesn’t do nearly as much with it as I was expecting. The film largely uses this as a cultural backdrop, and the elements of it that are integral to the plot feel rather shallow in context. I can see why West would want to use the moral uproar towards media in the 80s in this film, but it feels so basic in practice. I will say that there is an interesting idea that the film poses late into the runtime regarding radical Christianity, but it gets glossed over very quickly. There are so many different avenues the film could have explored in regards to the Satanic panic and religion, but it takes the most surface-level approach and ends up saying very little in the process. 

In fact, this issue spreads to most of the film’s big ideas, as there are some interesting things being explored, but there is little to no depth to any of them. The main reason for this problem is that the film tries to cram a lot of thoughts and commentary amidst the main plot, but doesn’t allow any of them to breathe. There are a lot of ideas about fame, the media, moral panic, and religion, to name a few, but they are presented rather flatly. It’s as if the film is bringing up these themes, pointing at them and saying “Isn’t that wild?” before quickly moving onto something else. I’m not saying that the film has to be a comprehensive mediation on these ideas, but a little more substance would have been much appreciated, especially in how it handles religion and societal responses towards the media.

This mainly rears its ugly head in the third act, which sees a lot of what the film has built up to that point start to cave in on itself. The first two acts aren’t half bad, to be honest, but the third act feels like West and company are scrambling to figure out how to tie up as many loose ends as possible. While they’re able to reach some conclusions, they aren’t the most satisfying, and make the film end on a bit of a shrug. The whole film is working towards a twist which feels pretty obvious in the grand scheme of things, and once it arrives at that moment, the film kind of starts to fall apart. I’ll say that it does begin to feel like it will head to some interesting territory at first, but then quickly abandons it. It is so disappointing, because there was so much potential for this film, and the series by extension, to end well. The way that MaXXXine ends isn’t a complete disaster, but it is a let-down compared to the rest of the series.

The film throws a lot against the wall to see what sticks, which is not only a disservice to it, but goes against part of what worked so well in both X and Pearl. Both of those films were filmed back-to-back in 2021 amidst safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When I thought back on the production of those films, compared to MaXXXine’s production, I developed a theory that could explain why MaXXXine feels like the odd one out to me. X clearly lit a creative fire in Ti West, as the idea for Pearl came to him while making it. Both films feel borne from more of the story that West wanted to tell, and their smaller budgets and the restrictions put on both films due to COVID-19 forced him to get creative and adopt a more economic method of filmmaking. When both of those films were released and caught on with fans, it likely caused some pressure for West. Due to this being the end of the trilogy and it being set in Hollywood, it feels like he is going bigger to try and one-up himself a little. It’s a natural inclination for any director making a sequel, but West comes across as indecisive in how to go about this, and puts seemingly all of his ideas, no matter how small, in the film. This leads to hardly any of the larger themes feeling substantial, and ends up leaving quite a few plot points and characters woefully underdeveloped. West really wanted this film to be bigger and better than his previous two films, but it mostly ends up just being messy. 

All that said, the film is still interesting in a way, as it evokes the campiness of 80s horror films better than other films that try to adopt this style. The slasher element of the film is what works best about it, and the shades of giallo and neo-noir that show up from time to time help the film out as well. When it focuses on the pastiche it is going for and when it remembers to be a slasher, it ends up being a pretty enjoyable ride. It is only when it tries to introduce something more to the equation that things get rough. West clearly knows how to use style in his approach to filmmaking, which ends up being MaXXXine’s saving grace. There are enough good things going on with some of the film’s genre elements that make it worth watching, and keeps the film moving. Not all of these live up to their full potential, necessarily, but they still end up being fairly decent at the very least.

The other key element of this film, and the X series as a whole, is none other than Mia Goth, who once again turns in a great performance here. This film sees her in more of a quieter space, especially compared to her work in Pearl, but she uses this to her advantage. Goth builds a steely facade for Maxine that she is forced to keep up, both as a result of what happened to her in X and to exude confidence in her pursuit of fame. It gives her an interesting presence throughout the film, making her seem more hardened and mysterious, making us wonder what her next move will be. We see some vulnerability shine through the cracks at different points, but she mostly maintains a strong persona throughout. There is a fearlessness she brings to the character that we saw a bit of in X, and it is rather exciting to see her play into this further here. These films as a whole represent some of her best work, and act as a showcase of her versatility and talent. 

This film assembles a cast featuring some bigger names compared to the previous films, although it still maintains a relatively small ensemble nonetheless. Most of the supporting players don’t have all that much to do, but the majority of them make their mark. The most notable of the bunch is Kevin Bacon, who gives a big performance as John Labat, a private investigator who is after Maxine. Bacon adopts a Cajun accent, almost coming across like Benoit Blanc’s long-lost brother from the Bayou. He has the energy that I wish more of the other cast members had, as he walks the line between camp and seriousness quite well, and is arguably my favorite performance of the whole film. I was excited to see Giancarlo Esposito in this, especially because he breaks slightly from the straight-faced villain roles he has been typecast in as of late. He is quite good, but I wanted to see more of him. In fact, that is a chief complaint about many of the cast members, namely Moses Sumney and Lily Collins. They are both great, but seriously underused. Sumney especially feels like he had more to do in the film originally, but a lot of his scenes may have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s a shame, because I was intrigued by his character, but we don’t get the chance to know a lot about him. The cast is pretty solid, mainly because it is filled with reliably good actors, but it does feel like the film struggles to know how to properly use them at times.

MaXXXine is easily the weakest of the X movies, and manages to squander a lot of its potential. It lacks a fair amount of substance, but has plenty of style to spare, which ends up keeping it afloat for the most part. The film ends up being merely fine when it could have been just as good as X or Pearl, missing the opportunity to explore some interesting themes and suffering from a messy third act. If you want a campy horror film, this might scratch that itch, but those looking for anything beyond that will likely be disappointed. There are some moments of MaXXXine that are honestly fun and enjoyable, but the film doesn’t have much to offer beyond that, leading it to feel like a bit of a letdown.

Rating: 3/5

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