In the first few minutes of “X,” the newest horror film from director Ti West, two small-town police officers stumble across a gruesome crime scene on a remote farm, hints of the previous night’s carnage strewn about the vast estate. This terse and tense prologue sets the stage for what is to come — regardless of the specifics, one can be sure plenty of explicit violence is in store.
However, it is not just the violence in “X” that’s explicit. The film follows Maxine, Bobby-Lynne, RJ and other members of a group of Texan filmmakers and actors who hit the road to film a low-budget movie. Roughly ten minutes into “X,” Bobby-Lynne, an actor played by Brittany Snow, instructs RJ, the film’s director and cinematographer played by Owen Campbell, to shoot a gas nozzle from a strikingly phallic angle. As this scene makes clear, these aren’t just independent filmmakers — these are pornographers, hoping to cash in on the home video boom of the late 1970s.
At first glance, this motley crew seems to have found the perfect location to shoot their latest adult film, “The Farmer’s Daughter.” As soon as they arrive at the farm glimpsed in the prologue, the estate and boarding house they intend to film appear to be a perfect fit for this particularly rustic movie.
There’s only one problem, though — the owners and inhabitants of the farm, elderly couple Pearl, played by Mia Goth, and Howard, played by Stephen Ure, are plainly unhinged. Their insanity only grows more pronounced when they discover exactly what their tenants are up to, initially unbeknownst to these menacing senior citizens. Shortly after Pearl catches a glimpse of the crew filming an explicit sex scene, all hell begins to break loose.
As it turns out, West is better with the foreplay than the climax. The first hour or so of “X” is superb — the director and screenwriter draws out the suspense with an extended slow-burn of a setup. West takes his time establishing his central setting, characterizations and atmosphere, to great effect. There’s great specificity in the portrayal of and interplay between all of the central characters, with each of them possessing distinct personalities which deepen and reveal new layers as the film unfolds.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Goth especially nailing her role as the film’s fiery and drug-addled protagonist, Maxine. She’s also tremendously creepy in her other role as one of the film’s antagonists, Pearl — the fact that she remains terrifying, in spite of the mounds of prosthetics she was forced to wear to convincingly play an old woman, is a testament to the strength of her performance.
West also does a great job of establishing a decidedly uneasy atmosphere, wallowing in the woozy and sun-soaked menace of the Texas countryside. There’s one remarkably suspenseful scene involving an alligator, which ranks as the film’s most terrifying and indelible moment.
Unfortunately, once the chaos commences in earnest, the film loses some of the control it had consistently exhibited prior to the film’s third act. There’s a lot to like about this film’s wild final third — the film is never less than entertaining, and the extended climax is full of memorable shocks, intense moments, and memorably gory violence. Still, after the precision of the film’s first hour, it’s difficult not to think the movie devolves a bit.
West doesn’t always display the firmest guiding hand over the movie’s extreme carnage. Some of the violence comes off as a bit unimaginative, and the film’s sudden onslaught of incidents can’t help but seem a bit haphazard. The movie also concludes with a closing line and post-credits scene which feel too tongue-in-cheek for their own good.
In spite of the film’s closing stumbles, “X” is mostly a treat. The movie is a flat-out gem for most of its runtime, and even its weaker sections make for satisfying entertainment. While the film has a fair bit going on from a thematic perspective, its greatest pleasures are simple and unpretentious — it’s full of atmosphere, sex and violence, and it’s a blast.