X Review: A Viscerally Violent Reminder of Our Own Mortal Decay

Over the past decade, A24 Films has carved a niche for themselves among genre fans, as releases like Enemy, It Comes at Night, Hereditary, and The Lighthouse marked ambitious approaches to genre storytelling that were a far cry from what audiences would expect from mainstream releases. Their latest horror film, X, takes a similar approach to unraveling a horror story, though while it will surely be lumped into the ambiguous and dismissive label of “elevated horror,” it comes from writer/director Ti West, who was been delivering these circumventions of tonal expectations since back in the days when such approaches were called “mumblegore.” However audiences might attempt to pigeonhole the final product, X makes for a life-affirming and unsettling exploration of our own mortality, a grim reminder of the destination we’re all headed to eventually, regardless of how explosive or underwhelming that descent might be.

Set in 1979, a group of friends aim to cash in on the variety of skills they all have to make an adult movie, offering them the opportunity to escape the small-town doldrums of rural Texas. Their elderly hosts on a remote farm don’t entirely approve of their pursuits, however, resulting in a less-than-warm welcome that might put an end to their cinematic dreams.

West’s breakout film came in 2009 with The House of the Devil, an ’80s-set Satanic-Panic thriller with deliberate pacing and an embrace of that decade’s aesthetic. As if that film didn’t earn him enough acclaim among the indie-horror crowd, his follow-ups The Innkeepers and The Sacrament also landed on plenty of Best-of-Horror lists in their respective years, though it’s been nearly a decade since he’s delivered a straightforward horror effort. After bouncing around to different TV series covering a variety subgenres, X proves that West has gotten back to horror with a vengeance, delivering audiences what is sure to be one of the best horror films of the year and could arguably be his best effort to date.

Much like House of the Devil was shot on 16mm, X immediately evokes the look and feel of genre films from the time, instantly immersing audiences in a sun-baked Texan farmhouse without ever feeling like it is cashing in on nostalgia. The entire look and feel of the film serves as a love letter to horror movies from that point in time, as opposed to attempting to merely replicate more accomplished films in hopes of viewers conflating their fondness for those outings in order to buy West some good will. The entire look and feel of X reminds audiences of how West makes the most mundane of sequences look effortlessly compelling, thanks to the staging and composition of each scene.

As we meet our heroes, they appear at first glance to fulfill a number of caricatures for horror films. There’s Maxine (Mia Goth), the actor who dreams of stardom, Wayne (Martin Henderson), the moneyman who seemingly coerced the stars into having sex on film, and the more experienced performers Jackson (Scott Mescudi) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), whose strengths seem to be more in their physical chemistry as opposed to their intellects. As we start to spend time with them, though, we quickly learn how much more layered and complex they are, not only thanks to the script offering them the opportunities to demonstrate their backgrounds, but also with the performers themselves bringing their own specific charms to the roles in ways that honor these archetypes, yet also makes them more nuanced, without ever debasing or satirizing those foundational stereotypes.

Helping to highlight the complexities of our heroes are their foils, the elderly couple Howard and Pearl. Like the antagonists, audiences will initially see them as the “creepy old couple” who have their misgivings about the burgeoning filmmakers, yet West never merely has them hiding in the shadows or serve as one-dimensional villains who are intimidating merely because the film needs its monsters. In fact, it’s these characters who are arguably the most compelling figures in the entire narrative. While we’ve seen countless backwoods slashers featuring antagonists with a number of motivations, the juxtaposition of young, attractive people with their whole lives ahead of them vs. the couple who have a deep love for one another, yet who have realized their best days are long behind them, ultimately serves as what is the most unsettling element of the horror film. Filmmaker John Carpenter has often described the horror genre as either being external or internal: evil coming from outside of a community or the evil that resides within humans themselves. X manages to be both external and internal, as it explores how the only difference between the two is the passage of time. Every character, and every viewer, is headed towards the same destination, with it being easy to empathize with Howard and Pearl and their confrontation with the brutal reminder that physically and mentally, their days are numbered, igniting jealousy, resentment, and potentially violence within them. On a long enough timeline, the young characters could ultimately become similar monsters themselves.

While the film assuredly tackles heady themes like mortality and aging, it still offers some unsettling and traditional horror imagery. Though, keeping in tradition with West’s track record, it takes a full hour before anything overtly violent takes place. This allows audiences to truly connect with these characters and invest in whether they could really get this film made, only to then be reminded that, for as unconventional as it might be, it’s still definitively a horror movie. As if the more violent sequences aren’t viscerally disturbing enough, seeing characters we’ve invested in so heavily undergo any sort of bodily trauma hits with more impact, with a character suffering a minor foot injury evoking more compassion from the audience than the brutal deaths of figures from other slashers.

Adding yet another layer of effectiveness to the overall experience is West’s evocative musical choices, both with its underlying score and its in-world selections. One song, in particular (which we won’t reveal as to lessen its impact), has a long history of being used in horror movies, yet feels entirely reinvented in its incorporation, delivering a disturbing and gruesome ballet illuminated by headlights, arguably making it a definitive use of the track in a horror film. For the score, West enlisted collaborator Tyler Bates, who previously composed the score for The Sacrament, while also enlisting musician Chelsea Wolfe, whose career has explored neo-folk, black metal, and industrial. While Bates was able to lay a foundation to establish the mood and atmosphere of the picture by establishing an era-appropriate base level, Wolfe’s more haunting and ethereal vocal contributions elevate the discordant elements of the score while never fully plunging us into darkness. The film also closes with Wolfe’s cover of the 1918 song “Oui Oui Marie,” creating an echo of the past while also establishing X as a contemporary experience.

West’s breakout in the horror world came at a time when the gap between mainstream horror and independent efforts began to close, as On Demand and streaming services grew in popularity in the late ’00s and early ’10s. After a decade away from delivering audiences a straightforward horror effort, West has proven with X that he hasn’t lost his touch at surprising even the most devout horror fans with unexpected experiences, and has even sharpened his skills even further in the time since the release of The Sacrament.

Given that horror is meant to bring our nightmares into reality, it should be a sandbox for storytellers to showcase their ambitions and imaginations in, yet it’s also the genre that can endure the most scrutiny when filmmakers attempt to step outside of preconceived notions. Devotees of all things dark and disturbing will dismiss a film that steps outside of rigid constraints, while those who are critical of the genre as a whole will find caveats and horror-adjacent phrases that try to make standout entries sound more respectable. Despite what anyone else might call it, either to erase or endorse it, X is certifiably a horror movie, and one that happens to be as jarring with its violence as with its exploration of the life that drains from you with every given day, heading towards a demise that comes not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Rating: 5 out of 5

X lands in theaters on March 18th.


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