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SXSW Film review: 'X' brings sex, violence and holy ghosts to the cinema of sin

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Let's rip out some guts.

Not to be a sicko. I mean, kind of to be a sicko. This is in honor of the uber-popular South by Southwest Film Festival horror flick "X," which deserves a thoughtful unpacking of its themes and stylistic choices.

An evisceration of kindness, please and thanks.

The 1970s-set-and-styled slasher made its world premiere on March 13 at Stateside at the Paramount. (So highly anticipated was this movie that the packed house led us to catch it at an also-packed Alamo Drafthouse screening a couple days later.)

Director Ti West transports us to 1979 Houston, a post-"Debbie Does Dallas" world where sexual libertines sit under the same oil refinery shadow as holy rollers. Wild child Maxine (Mia Goth) is going to be a star, damn it, by hell or high water. Considering the movie, you get the sense it will be hell. Her cowboy-hatted boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson) is a budding pornographer looking to cash in on the home video market. 

In "X," Mia Goth plays Maxine, a young lady in the 1970s who believes she's destined for fame.

So, the pair travel to the East Texas sticks with canny blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow, fantastic), her lover Jackson (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi), cinema-minded camera man RJ (Owen Campbell) and his repressed girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) to live the American dream: making a porno in a dilapidated barn house.

Luckily for the bloodthirsty among us, they picked the one wrong farm to rent: a broken-down dump owned by an elderly pair of deranged, decaying but sexually combustible Bible-thumpers, played by Stephen Ure and, in a brilliant dual turn, Goth.

The gleefully gory "X" comes with the arthouse-y seal of production house A24, so there's an air of grand design wafting around all this brazen filth. West's film simply loves movies and the process of making them — both the high and the low, which makes this sacred/profane subject matter a smooth fit.

Or as RJ says: You can make a good dirty movie.

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Using grindhouse horror cues as his weapon of choice, West takes a stab at many exciting stylistic flourishes.

There are the must-dos, like the perfect recreation of a grainy, square-ratio porno film in the requisite parts.

There are the one-perfect-shots, like an overhead of Maxine swimming to a lake dock while a gator patiently lurks directly behind her for what seems like 30 years.

There are the camp moments, like a spray of blood coating a headlight and drenching the frame in red light as a killer dances.

And there are the indie-horror experiments, like a visual stutter that blinks between two scenes in select moments.

There's a world in which that all feels unfocused, but considering the premise and the mood of "X," it just feels fun. All that said: A mid-movie use of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" could have been slashed.

Brittany Snow in a scene from the horror movie "X."

It's not just technical exercises; "X" is a good-ass horror movie. The ominous ride out to rural terror, yes. The creepy old lady staring out the window, si. The another-one-bites-the-dust structure of the second act, which dispatches its protagonists in a variety of creative ways, you betcha. Genuine gasps and groans over here.

Horror movies often do this Trojan horse thing where they tell us something about society or about our inner selves. In "X," there are no shortage of high-minded ideas to fish out of the entrails.

On the surface, West's characters speak instructively of the freedom their sexuality offers them — physically, economically, spiritually. The proprietors of the farm are hideously gnarled, their repression and judgment having contorted them into beasts inside and out. Our youthful upstarts are freed by flesh.

There is something a little sour in the way "X" depicts aging. West feints at sympathy for Pearl, the old woman played by Goth in extreme makeup, a former beauty who sees in Maxine both a mirror from the past and an outlet for release. But "X" still goes out of its way to make a grotesquerie of Pearl by script and by camera. Don't waste your youth, the message goes, but is aging itself a moral failure? The film can't make up its mind.

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Meanwhile, when the most pious character not living as a sinister shut-in decides to taste the forbidden fruit before her, she symbolically removes her crucifix. Throughout the film, a televangelist on a crackly black-and-white broadcast spouts fire and brimstone any time a TV is in the scene. 

No spoilers, but Maxine clearly has a past that we're not privy to, and she's got a real contempt for the kind of Christianity that leaves death in its wake. You get the sense that, from the beginning of the movie, she's already the final girl of a different horror movie, and that one involved pews. She will not settle for a life she does not deserve, she insists.

"X" — maybe the title is a cross as much as it's a movie rating — is haunted by that holy ghost. Befitting the genre, it's a vengeful spirit. The Old Testament always did have plenty of sex and violence.

'X'

Grade: B+

Starring: Mia Goth, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi

Director: Ti West

Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, gore, drug use, language, strong bloody violence

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Watch: In theaters Friday