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A Star is Born – and Stalked

If you watch enough movies, a few things start to happen. One of those is that you begin to recognize a filmmaker’s voice. You’ll notice the cheery pessimism of David Fincher, the slick wistfulness of Steven Spielberg, the aggressive goth-osity of Tim Burton, and the puckish rage of Spike Lee. It’s true that some directors tweak their style to fit the material. But the Bigelows, the Gerwigs, the Scorseses of the world have, like criminals, a certain signature to their work.

Once you start to recognize those voices, you’ll inevitably discover that you don’t like some of them. Dozens and dozens of years ago, while in college, I saw Fargo, the Academy Award-winning crime movie from the Coen Brothers, accompanied by a woman I had a crush on. Two things happened after that screening. First, I learned that I really connected with the Coens mashup of Looney Tunes inspired humor, sudden violence, and icy nihilism. The second was that the woman I was with was really not into the film. She shook her head, saying, “I just don’t understand why people think that’s a good movie.”*

That’ll happen, and I’ve come to learn that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of indie horror filmmaker Ti West’s work. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a genuinely smart and talented filmmaker, and as far as I know, a decent human being to boot. I enjoyed his Western In a Valley of Violence, but I’ve bounced off the rest of his films like a bug on a windshield. Did my opinion of West change after seeing MaXXXine, the third film in his X trilogy? No! Should you see it? Maybe!

First thing, if you haven’t seen X, MaXXXine will be tough sledding, since plot points set up in the former are (kind of?) paid off in the latter. Nevertheless, X concerns the 1979 set adventures of a group of plucky young filmmakers. They arrive at a remote Texas farm to shoot a porn flick. They begin getting bumped off, and the only survivor is Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a wannabe porn star and daughter to a fire and brimstone televangelist. 

Now Maxine has a new lease on life, and by 1985, she’s relocated to Los Angeles. She’s still part of the porn industry, but she firmly believes she’s destined for “real” stardom. Maxine has the kind of confidence shared by Republicans and serial killers, the idea that it’s only a matter of time before she bestrides the world like a colossus. Sooner or later, the world will get with the program.

Her first step is an audition for a key role in the horror movie, “The Puritan II.” She impresses Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), the director, and while she waits for a decision, she goes to her steady job at a peep show. Unbeknownst to Maxine, she’s watched by a leather-glove wearing figure. That’s not great, since Los Angeles is already being terrorized by the serial murderer known as the Night Stalker. Is Los Angeles big enough for two killers to share? Apparently!

Anyway, Maxine learns that women she knows are being killed. While she’s not a suspect, LAPD detectives Williams (Michelle Monahan) and Torres (Bobby Cannavale) believe that tailing Maxine will lead them to the killer. Maxine also receives a mysterious videotape proving her involvement in the 1979 porn shoot/massacre. Amusingly sleazy private eye Labat (Kevin Bacon) informs her all will be revealed unless she meets with his shadowy client. From there, we’re treated to chases, gunfights, stabbings, shocking revelations, and long-winded monologues about the nature of art.

Everyone who’s ever made a movie has, to some degree, been influenced by someone else. Ti West is no different. What he’s been doing with the X trilogy is putting those influences on Main, X is West riffing on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while Pearl is his puckish take on Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, only with far more sex and murder. That being the case, MaXXXine seems to be West dipping into Brian De Palma’s erotic thrillers from the 80s. Lots of neon, lots of shadowy and grime-soaked streets, and the hostile contrast between excessive sleaze and excessive moralism. I think West likes remixing his influences, with a bit more of an arch take. Yet the issue I had here is that West seems so focused on the imagery of what we remember the 80s to be as opposed to the reality. It’s as if he’s filtering the decade through the lens of erotic thrillers and telling us how shallow it all was. True, but what’s underneath that? 

The other large issue I had is with characterization in West’s screenplay. If you watch both X and Pearl, you’ll see protagonists who are pushing the narrative forward. As active protagonists, they’re interesting. Here, Maxine says repeatedly that she’ll do anything to be famous. Her behavior is often passive, and she reacts to things happening to her. Along with that issue, Maxine tells anyone who listens that she desperately craves stardom. Not that she wants to be an actor, but that she wants to be a star. What’s driving that? Does she want power? Attention? Influence? Money? Perhaps Maxine doesn’t know herself? The script doesn’t let us into her point of view enough.

That mistake creates yet another problem that Mia Goth had to reckon with. If you watch her in the prior X films or in the deeply strange A Cure for Wellness, you’ll see an actor with an extremely specific persona.** When Goth has the right script to plug her significant talent into, she can deliver performances that are heartbreaking, funny, fascinating, and weird in the best sense of the word. She’s let down here, and instead, to paraphrase the aforementioned Fargo, she’s playing someone weird in a general sort of way. To my mind, the two more interesting performances come from Kevin Bacon as the private eye and Giancarlo Esposito as Maxine’s scheming manager. Both of them understand that they’re not meant to be playing characters during the 1980s, but “characters” in the “1980s.” As a result, they calibrate their performances to feel like they fit within this world, yet are distinctive enough that I got excited when either of them showed up. 

I’ve been writing about movies long enough to know when a review doesn’t really matter. This is one of those times. If you’re a fan of Ti West’s work, you won’t care what I think. If you’re new to the West oeuvre, you’ll know very quickly if his flavor of ice cream is to your liking, and this review won’t matter. Either way, God love ya, as our excruciatingly old President might say. For me, MaXXXine is a film that doesn’t quite work from a filmmaker who continues to have a long and well-deserved career.

 

*The crush went unrequited, but I figure things worked out for the best. I’m in a happy marriage, and my former crush was spared the horror of being married to me. Win win!

**Goth feels a lot like Christopher Walken to me, where she’s got the persona of someone slightly alien forced to deal with normal people.



Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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