‘MaXXXine’ Is Punch-Drunk on Pastiche
Pop Culture

‘MaXXXine’ Is Punch-Drunk on Pastiche

Give Ti West this: He’s completed the quickest trilogy in contemporary horror movie history. Barely two years after X introduced us to its gore-soaked version of the MCU—that’d be the Maxine Cinematic Universe, named for the ornery and resourceful would-be-porn-star-cum-Final-Girl embodied by Mia Goth—West has jerry-rigged a triptych whose conceptual sturdiness and artistic merit are, if far from certain, at least worthy of debate. With the release of MaXXXine, the question is whether West has truly succeeded in carving out a niche of his own or whether his series is just a (figuratively) bloodless exercise in received themes and aesthetics.

To return to the initial film: There was plenty to like about X, which took a lurid, high-concept premise—i.e., what if Boogie Nights were drenched in more crimson bodily fluids?—and used it to limn the practical and spiritual overlap between two kindred and disreputable forms of cinema (that’d be horror and porn). Nostalgia and sleaze are a potent combination, and the spectacle of nubile, solipsistic exhibitionists being systematically eviscerated by the wizened, married homesteaders whose farm they’d commandeered for a skin-flick shoot nodded to vintage traditions. (For extra ’70s resonance, there was even a cover of “Landslide.”) The ace up West’s sleeve, meanwhile, was hidden in plain view: By casting Goth in a dual role as both a hard-edged starlet and a catatonic, knife-wielding crone—the latter of whom seems to envy her younger doppelgänger’s ripe flesh even as she’s stabbing at it—West tapped into a rich vein of grotesquerie that was also dripping with melancholy.

The same ratio of sadism and anguish carried over to Pearl, which flashed back to the 1910s to document the eponymous villain’s formative years—as well as the roots of the adult film industry in an era of one-reel stag films. (Pearl, it seems, was born ready for her close-up.) Like its predecessor, West’s prequel was designed primarily as a showcase for Goth, whose elongated physicality and unsettling expressivity have made her a kind of It Girl for directors on (or near) the cutting edge of cinematic provocation. (In addition to West, she’s collaborated with Lars von Trier, Claire Denis, Luca Guadagnino, and Brandon Cronenberg.) None of these variously gifted filmmakers have given the actor as much to work with as West, who clearly loves putting his leading lady in outrageous situations—including molesting her own mirror image, cosplaying Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and making out with a scarecrow—and watching her squirm, snarl, or slash her way out of them. To this end, Pearl also gifts its star with a late, barn-burning monologue that unfolds in a single take, a bravura piece of writing that could be used in the future by aspiring genre ingenues, even if it’s unlikely they could equal Goth’s rubber-faced aplomb.

With this in mind, MaXXXine begins with an audition piece—one that recalls Pearl’s centerpiece scene and that sutures its themes into an increasingly intricate franchise timeline. The setting is Los Angeles circa 1985, a half decade after the events of X, which, as we’re shown, have become mythological tabloid fodder. After fleeing the scene of the crime—and eluding both the authorities and her Bible-thumping father, glimpsed in X via a series of fire-and-brimstone PSAs—Maxine has dyed her hair blond, boned up on her VHS collection, and become the toast of the local porno circuit. What she really wants to do, though, is act with her clothes on: After scoring a reading for an upcoming religious horror movie, our heroine channels her trauma into the dialogue, Mulholland Drive style, impressing the self-consciously ball-breaking, would-be-artiste director (a deadpan Elizabeth Debicki) enough that she’s willing to take a chance on an unknown. No sooner has Maxine processed her triumph, however, than a mysterious figure with knowledge of her true identity emerges, wielding threats of blackmail (or worse).

The mid-’80s backdrop gives West and his production designers a whole new set of textures to play with, and their re-creation of Los Angeles teems with vivid, eye-catching details. (The neon-drenched streets deliberately evoke Brian De Palma’s seminal Body Double from 1984.) The setting also coincides with the grisly crimes of “the Night Stalker”—the Bay Area and SoCal serial killer whose media-appointed nickname made him the perfect bogeyman for an era known colloquially as “Morning in America.” In a scene-setting montage comprising archival footage, West juxtaposes Richard Ramirez and Ronald Reagan, hinting not so subtly that, on some level, the president and the predator represented two sides of the same ideological coin, converging their energies in the so-called satanic panic that saw the Gipper’s evangelical base lashing out in reactionary furor against what they perceived as the demonic influence of popular culture.

West has already made a movie set during this period: 2009’s skillful and scary The House of the Devil, which similarly luxuriated in period decor without sacrificing shock and intensity (including one of the greatest kills of all time, featuring a pre-superstardom Greta Gerwig). By contrast, the biggest problem with MaXXXine is that it’s completely punch-drunk on pastiche; by putting everything in scare quotes, West ensures that nothing is actually scary—a miscalculation that neuters the movie’s impact. The fake red-carpet protests organized for the movie’s premiere underline this problem; when a movie has to import its own scandalized, pearl-clutching detractors—as opposed to actually giving pious or censorious types something to scream about—it doesn’t bode well for any sort of real cult status.

Speaking of which: It’s clear that one of West’s structural and tonal models is Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which isn’t a horror movie but still bristles with a sense of dread—think of the slow-burning Spahn Ranch sequence, which scrambles genre archetypes (it’s a menagerie of hippies, cowboys, and serial killers) but never telegraphs where it’s going. MaXXXine’s stalk-and-slash set pieces hit all the right marks—deep-red giallo lighting; close-ups of black-gloved hands; murky camcorder textures à la Lost Highway—but rarely transcend them. (One exception: a close encounter with a knife-wielding Buster Keaton impersonator who ends up getting his balls stomped on; I don’t know what West has against Keaton, but I didn’t see that coming.)

If there’s a scene that emblematizes MaXXXine’s spoiled promise, it comes about halfway through: After injuring the private investigator (Kevin Bacon) hired by the unseen big bad to harass her, Maxine is shocked to see him on set, nose bandaged like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. He chases her through a series of faux period backdrops all the way to the front door of the Bates Motel, at which point … nothing happens. All that rich Hollywood iconography never coalesces into anything: It’s a hall of mirrors that reflects nothing except its maker’s frame of reference. (Although it is nice to see West’s mentor Larry Fessenden on hand as a benign security guard—probably the first time that the indie stalwart has ever been on a big studio lot.) Some horror movies thrive in incoherence, but if anything, MaXXXine is too lucid for its own good: It’s an almost entirely plot-based movie, and it doesn’t help that the central mystery—specifically the identity of the silent, faceless figure pursuing Maxine at every turn—is so thin. If the best horror movies make their climactic revelations feel simultaneously shocking and inevitable, MaXXXine’s resolution is merely predictable—and disappointing given the larger intimations of some grand narrative design.

In light of these flaws, it almost doesn’t matter that Goth holds the screen as fully as she does—almost. MaXXXine is framed by a quote by Bette Davis that explains in show business, women have to be perceived as monsters before they can be held up as stars, and Goth—who’s closer to having Bette Davis eyes than most members of her generational cohort—conveys the right mix of righteous self-possession and sinister ambition to give the film’s coda a little bit of friction. The closing tableau, which calls back to Pearl’s boldly confrontational finale, is clever and ambivalent—enough so to make us wish that the movie attached was more worthy of it. At the same time, the final shots clarify something about the ultimate artificiality of West’s project, which amounts in the end to nothing more than a series of exquisite corpses—shapely but ersatz body doubles ready-made for dissection and then filed away in the crowded necropolis of genre cinema.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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