X, the new A24 film written and directed by Ti West, is a slasher flick all about filmmaking, sort of. In Texas in 1979, a handful of people rent an isolated farmhouse to secretly shoot an adult film. This is my SPOILER-FREE review. This simple premise sounds like every generic 70s and 80s slasher, right?
Think again. Admittedly, I have a very precarious relationship with A24. They are just so hit and miss with me. Some films I love and will defend. Others I outright hated. It's hard to find flaws in this, however. I rarely say this, but I've never seen a film like this before. It's brilliant.
Profound themes are explored like the fear of aging and regret from life choices from both generations' perspectives. The morality of the adult film industry is also discussed. The sexual revolution of the '70s and the intergenerational conflict stemming from embracing your sexuality are addressed too. It touches on the cost of fame and fortune very innovatively. Religion is another piece of the puzzle. The glorification of youthful beauty is another topic. There’s way more to the tip of this enormous iceberg than meets the eye.
I like how the director framed his shots. It's full of creepy first-person POVs of the killer. I like the use of lighting for the lingering long shots down dark corridors and fields. Different lenses and red lights are implemented creatively too. It's spectacular. I liked the way wide shots are used from above to give a sense of scale to the vastness of the gorgeous New Zealand countryside, making excellent use of the isolated setting. Nobody does idiotic things to progress the story either, they act out deductive reasoning. Everything makes sense for the plot.
It has great gore and visual effects makeup. It delivers good jump scares but isn’t reliant on them for a good mix of suspense and surprise. As Hitchcock explained: surprise is a bomb exploding without warning underneath a table during dinner. Suspense is watching the bomb's timer countdown while a dinner conversation goes on before exploding. This film achieves both because shockingly horrific moments are implemented showing disturbing situations and payoff moments are satisfyingly earned after much anticipation building them up. It's not for everyone but it's a genuinely creepy, unnerving film.
The phenomenal cast feels like real people because the exposition is intricately written, delivered in small doses. They're all flawed but have good intentions. It's terrible when films are full of such disposable characters that 30 minutes in your like "Oh my god kill these people already! " All these performances make for fantastically likeable characters.
Mia Goth is mesmerizing as Maxine, an aspiring actress willing to do anything to make it big. And she plays the elderly woman, Pearl. I didn't know this until the credits rolled.
Brittney Snow stands out as Bobby-Lynn, who's unabashedly proud to be in the adult film industry. She plays against type with stunning success.
Kid Cudi is Jackson, her quasi-boyfriend and co-star. He has the same stance as her but his insecurities are fleshed out as the plot progresses. That dichotomy is fascinating.
I mistakenly thought Martin Henderson was Matthew McConaughey upon first glance. Instead of feeling like a discount version of him, he plays the character Wayne with both gravitas and levity as the film's producer.
Jenna Ortega is boom mic operator Lorraine. She has a wonderful story arc about the double standards of men and women when it comes to their sex lives. She's a strong-willed, intelligent woman who's relatable and empathetic.
Owen Campbell is RJ, the director, trying to elevate the adult film standards by making his more artistic and cinematic. His heart-wrenching story is more emotional than the others adding many dimensions to his character.
It does get very sexually explicit with plenty of full-body nudity. Also, it's the goriest film I've seen this year. Surprisingly, it's not all naked girls and gore. They don't take the easy way out to entertain. What could have been a cheap, cheesy, dumbed-down slasher is elevated by realistic conversations, slow-burn storytelling, and superb direction. It's so meta, with offbeat, dark humour. I found myself laughing in the theatre throughout.
Most deaths are unexpected. The kills are brutal. The sex scenes are numerous but not gratuitous. They're tastefully done. When sex and violence do mix it never crosses the line, unlike most exploitation films. (Rape films like I Spit On Your Grave for lack of a better term.) It's never shown on screen, only implied like in Se7en with the Lust crime.
The score is perfection. All the songs came out in the 70s, adding to the atmosphere.
Overall, it's a slow-burn slasher film done right by taking the time to build characters. I cared when they died. The great use of suspense and surprise provides very intense horror elements. The complexities stem from the plot so naturally, it never feels exhaustive. I enjoyed the callbacks to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Scream, and Psycho. It takes a while to get going but so worth it when it does. Smart social commentary elevates it too. The title has multiple meanings which is a huge perk. I've made comparisons, yet so much separates this from your standard generic slashers. While paying homage to many movies, this is truly original. Case in point, A24 isn't known for slashers so that alone makes it unique. Also, a prequel has been filmed back to back with this film and a third is planned. A24 isn't known for franchise's so that shows the confidence they have in this. I stayed after the credits but no Pearl preview was shown. Hopefully, you have better luck so stick around just in case. I highly recommend this. And remember, these people are dying to show you a good time in this X-travagant X-emplary X-ample of a slasher masterpiece!
Grade: X-tra X-tra X-tra Large Popcorn