Ti West’s latest film, X, is a remarkable dissection of the 70s counterculture, the backlash it produced, and the ways we might think about that reaction in the present wave of sexual liberation. Soaked in deep-fried Texas texture, it’s set over a 24-hour timespan, and involves two groups of people. On the one hand, we have the cast and crew working on an adult film – adult stars Maxine Minx, Bobby Lynne and Jackson Hole, played by Mia Goth, Brittany Snow and Kid Cudi, director Wayne Gilroy, played by Martin Henderson, cinematographer RJ Nicholls, played by Owen Campbell, and boom operator Lorraine, played by Jenna Ortega. On the other hand we have an elderly couple, Howard, played by Stephen Ure, and Pearl, also played by Mia Goth, who rent out their property to the film crew, unaware of their intentions.
The stage is thus set for one of the more dominant modes of horror in recent years – agesploitation. From the cackling grandparents of The Visit, to the weird shift to middle-aged and older victims in Halloween Kills, directors have turned more and more to the subject of ageing to generate horror in the late 2010s and early 2020s. West puts his spin on that, and perhaps provides a reason for it, by using these two groups of people to represent two types of bodies that were becoming visible in the wake of sexual liberation. The adult film crew, and the women in particular, stand for a new nubility, and a new visibility of nubility, that in turn ushers in a new category of decrepitude, embodied by the old couple. Much of the conservative hatred for liberation, as the film imagines it, stems from the old couple’s rage of missing out on its sexual benefits – the experience of finding oneself old in a totally new way.
At the same time, X suggests, sexual liberation also made even the most nubile of people aware of their own imminent decrepitude in a new way as well. The more that sexual openness was permitted mainstream expression, the more the horizon of sexual viability shrunk, producing a whole new sexual market, and a more robust criteria for attractiveness, that descends over the course of West’s film. With even the most sexually privileged people registering their own eventual redundancy in this manner, old people were relegated to a whole other plane of grotesquerie, at least as the film puts it, in what often plays as a comment about libidinal conservatism in the present as much as a period piece about the 70s. Then, as now, West suggests the backlash to sexual freedom is about jealousy above all – of old folk registering benefits they never enjoyed now they’re well and truly off the market.
This reading of the 70s (and the present) emerges in X from the film crew’s ambition to make a groundbreaking adult movie, one that will both fuse adult cinema and regular cinema, and tap into the nascent home video market. Aspiring to create the next Debbie Does Dallas, director Wayne insists that “it is possible to make a good dirty movie,” while cinematographer RJ adopts an auteurism of his own, adopting avant-garde angles as “a good trick to disguise the low budget.” In order to remove themselves from the adult film industry as it currently stands, while preserving its titillating propulsion, the crew seek out the furthest recess from the sexual revolution, which turns out to be a property in remote central Texas. While there’s nudity aplenty here, the main frisson comes from their efforts to covertly location shoot around the farm, remaking its objects and processes as fetishistic props to their artistic vision.
As a result, two very different styles and space arise during the first act of the film, which follows the film crew as they settle into the farm. For the most part, West shoots the crew using the grindhouse style of 70s cinema (or 70s cinema reimagined through 00s cinema). This peaks during the sex scenes, which revert to a grainier register and a smaller aspect ratio, accompanied by blasts of deep-fried 70s funk. By contrast, West intersperses this style with a more alien gaze that draws on modern digital cinema, typically through crystalline wide shots that take a while to reveal their point of focus – the exact opposite of how adult cinema typically works. The first shot of the film bridges these two visual styles, presenting us with what appears to be a 70s home video aspect ratio, but turns out to be the dark edges of a barn that recedes into the background as West pans forward for the first of these pellucid wide vistas, which in this case depicts the arrival of police officers at the farm the next day.
These two styles intersect with two discrete spaces on the farm – the big house, where the old couple live, which is quickly associated with grindhouse horror; and the cabin, where the crew are working, which is quickly associated with adult cinema. Between these two structures, West converges adult cinema and grindhouse horror, not simply as his own project, but as the logical conclusion of the adult film crew’s project. For if the crew are serious about breaking through adult cinema to make contact with regular cinema, the genre they are most likely to hit upon is indeed grindhouse horror, since it bears the strongest resemblance to adult cinema in its erotic proliferation of disposable and interchangeable bodies. The “X” of the title alludes to the shared restrictions of these two genres, adult cinema and grindhouse cinema, and accordingly comes up before the closing credits in a retro rating.
Between these two houses, which stand for these two respective genres, and between the grainy and pellucid visual styles of the film, West builds a connective tissue that grows more uncanny as the film proceeds. In fact, X opens in the midst of this connective tissue, in the space between cabin and house, gritty and crystalline aspect rations, though West allows us to forget it for a brief beat as we move from the first to second act, when he intercuts between the house and cabin so precisely that he gradually melds them into one space, leaving the space around them as a disavowed remainder and reminder of their difference. Accordingly, the scariest moments in the first part of the film restore this space, by way of a neaby lake, where Lorraine goes for a swim as the rest of the crew are completing a scene. Lying in the midst of the lake, gazing up at the giant void of the sky, as we look down from an enormous height, she immerses herself in the strange pellucid distances and alien gazes of the film, as the fluidity of a crocodile that chases her, and an eagle that soars over her, together mirror the drone perspective of the camera itself, oddly and uncannily displaced in this 70s context.
The remoteness of this camera, and the alien gazes of the crocodile and eagle, are our first hint of the Pearl, the older woman, who accordingly also appears for the first time during this sequence, but so occluded and distant that she might as easily be an animal herself. This uncanny digital naturalism undoes the 70s pastoral that builds around the film crew, and that climaxes later that night in a rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” which eerily evokes the precarious spatial flow between the main house, higher up the hill, and the cabin where they are singing it. That, in turn, gives way to the most volatile and vertiginous intercutting with the old couple, until these cross-cuts start to occur in the same space, suggesting that each space, the cabin and the main house, are internally fractured by dint of the sheer existence of the other. It’s here that West lights upon the main trauma of the film – that 70s sexual liberation operated by accelerating age and shrinking the window for sexual viability.
We see this trauma play out first and foremost between the old couple, who don’t appear to have had sex in years, on account of Howard’s heart. Later in the film, Howard will tell Jackson that “I can’t give her what she wants…you don’t understand what it’s like, you can do what you please,” and that same agony of unfulfilled sexual desire suffuses these earlier scenes with a surprising pathos as well. At times, Howard and Pearl don’t exactly seem old, but more like repressed shadow bodies left behind by newly visible nubility and accelerated liberation. They’re the rearguard of the sexual revolution, as Pearl admits in her first conversation with Maxine, when she reaches out a gnarled finger to touch the young woman’s body, asks her to cast her gaze on a photograph of her from the 1930s, and reminds her that all beauty fades.
The scene is all the more uncanny in that Goth also plays Pearl, suggesting that the old couple don’t merely represent the age barrier to sexual viability, but young people gaining a new sense of their shelf life too, to the point where the crew see this as the main incentive to further liberation: “Queer, straight, black, white, it’s all disco – you know why? Because one day we’re going to be too old to have sex.” In the pivotal scene of the film, Lorraine, who has only ever operated the boom, and seems uncomfortable doing even that, asks if she can play a role in the film, for one simple reason: “Because I’m young.” It’s as if her youth might vanish if she doesn’t do the most transgressive thing possible to capture it, sending her boyfriend RJ into a paroxysm of anxiety, as he goes from crafting his avant-garde film to the prospect of seeing his previously monogamous partner copulating with an adult star before his very eyes.
In other words, RJ realises that sexual liberation creates a new horizon for attractiveness and availability, much as the couple in the house (and Pearl in particular) realise that it creates a new horizon for what is considered old. Both camps are witnessing the emergence of a totally new sexual market before our very eyes, analogous in its sweep to the home video market, and the blooming of B-erotica it produced. Pearl and RJ bear agonising witness to the mid-century sexual market being deregulated in real time, turning RJ into one of the shadow people too, as West collapses him into the dingy blue-green palette he has used to shoot the main house. Accordingly, RJ flees the farm, but collides into his shadow companion in Pearl on the very threshold, who in a daze of sexual frustration embraces him, kisses him, and instructs him to “Look at me like you looked at her – I can show you what I’m capable of it.”
Conversely, when RJ speaks to Pearl as an old woman – saying he doesn’t want to look at her naked, suggesting they look for her husband – she stabs him in the neck and then straddles him while he’s choking to death. Continuing to stab him over and over becomes the only way she can wrest a facial expression from him that’s comparative to sexual ecstasy, while entering an orgasmic-like trance of her own as blood ejaculates from the wounds pockmarking his neck. In stark contrast to this gorefest, she ends with a romantic dance, reprising the balletic arabesque poses of the 1930s photo of herself she showed to Maxine.
What ensues is a provocative revision of slasher horror, which was nearly always a backlash against the sexual revolution for anxious male audiences. In West’s vision, however, older women were infinitely more disenfranchised than men, young or old, by sexual liberation, explaining both why the original slasher in Friday the 13th was Jason’s mother and why she couldn’t be permitted to eclipse Jason beyond the first film, since the seriality and longevity of the slasher depended upon his vision of male victimhood. In that sense, Pearl is an involuted slasher, reversing the male gaze that was bolstered by liberation by reinventing the male body as a site of perverse penetration, culminating with her stabbing the director through the eyes, in a direct renunciation of male scopophilic violence. Unlike the male slasher, she doesn’t need a mask, since the face of an old woman is mask enough here, the last visage the crew would dream capable of this sexual potency, especially since she’s played by a younger woman, much as Maxine envisages the mask of age slowly creeping up on her.
As Pearl reclaims the male gaze, she denatures the visual field of the film, creating a dreamlike mood that corresponds to the odd lilting movements of her dance, as if she’s committing these murders half-asleep. Right when adult cinema and grindhouse horror converge as beacons for the male gaze, she dissociates them into something stranger, as the violence gradually circles back to the eerie alien gaze of the lake and crocodile. Jackson is killed shortly after retrieving a torch from the water, while Pearl pushes Bobby-Lynne off the jetty and into the murk, where her head is immediately gripped by a crocodile, and dragged underwater. Later, we learn that the lake is a repository of earlier hippie victims, an alchemical space that allows the rearguard of the sexual revolution to harvest the sexual life force of the vanguard.
Yet this strangeness is compounded by two more affects, which together give the third act of the film a remarkably resonant tone. The first might be described as agesploitation horror, and sees the film crew continually speaking to the old couple as they would to their grandparents. Just before she’s pushed into the lake, Bobby-Lynne tells Pearl to “be careful, step away from the edge” warns her that “it’s dangerous” and reassures her that “my Nanna gets confused too.” Similarly, Jackson continually refers to Howard as Pops, splitting the difference between respect and condescension until Howard finally resolves the tone by shooting him, right after Jackson gently chides him for trying to relive his military glory days.
West then combines this emergent strangeness and dark comedy with a profound sense of trauma. We see this shift in that same scene on the jetty, when Bobby-Lynne goes from treating Pearl like her grandmother to seething that “it ain’t my fault you didn’t live the life you wanted.” This is the trauma of belatedness, of the sexual revolution hitting too late, of the older generation witnessing a liberation they never got, now that they’re too old to be on the market. And this is West’s vision of conservatives, both in the 70s and in the present: their desires are no less liberated than the “whores” they condemn, but they don’t have a chance to act on them. The only way for Pearl and Howard to survive is to vampirically prey on the young, like the couple in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, so they set out to harvest the hippies, gaining a certain amount of traction from lopping them off, but saving their greatest pleasure for a scene that starts with Pearl lying down in bed next to Maxine, trying to absorb her life force, like Maxine’s own imminent unattractive self arising to haunt her nightmares.
The great twist of X, then, is that old people not only have the same capacity for pleasure as the young, but that it takes more perverse forms without the reprieve of liberation. Pearl and Howard’s spree thus ends with them having sex for the first time in years, in the afterglow of the adult film shoot, reclaiming the cabin as their own sexual space once again, as Maxine, the final girl, hides beneath the bed, before escaping just before they climax, just before they can fully harvest her life-force. She’s a paradoxical final girl, however, since her survival just hastens the arrival of her own older self, her own failure to command the market. True, she triumphs in the final scene, responding to Pearl’s mocking closing parry – “You’ll end up just like me” – by silencing her with a patronising “Sssh” when she breaks her hip, before running over her head a few times as she flees by car. Yet the sheer redundant extremity of this final act of violence, its compulsion to disavow as much as kill Pearl, suggests it’s only a matter of time before sexual liberation catches up with Maxine, reminding us that all the people who were Maxine’s age when the story unfolds, are now watching it in Pearl and Howard’s bodies.