MaXXXine Review | Living the Life She Deserves

by Andrew Parker

An effective blend of screams, sleaze, and smarts, writer/director/editor Ti West’s MaXXXine doesn’t fully measure up to the predecessors in its horror trilogy, but it does continue the franchise’s attempts to do something different with familiar characters inhabiting an expansive time frame. While not on the same level as the unnerving 70s set X or the more melodramatic and boundary pushing 1918 set Pearl, MaXXXine embeds itself fully in an era many horror, grindhouse, and exploitation film fans herald as a golden age: the 1980s. West’s latest shift allows him to keep the slasher movie tendencies and heightened period atmosphere from the two previous efforts intact, but comes at the slight expense of a narrative that is racing to keep up with itself.

The year is 1985, and survivor of the events in X Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) now lives in Los Angeles and is trying to make the pivot from skin flicks into the world of legitimate acting. Her first big break is set to come in a horror movie sequel, The Puritan II, directed by rising genre auteur Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki). Already 33, which is practically ancient when it comes to starlets, Maxine sees this as one of her last huge opportunities to make an impact. But with notorious serial killer The Night Stalker terrifying local citizens and pushy private investigator (Kevin Bacon) attempting to blackmail Maxine, she put into another situation where all of her wits and savvy will be needed to ensure survival and success.

As with Pearl and X, West pulls out all the stops in an attempt to make MaXXXine period authentic. There are black gloved killers, plenty of neon lights, garish outfits, lines of cocaine everywhere, great usage of studio backlots, recognizable needle drops, and a prevalent satanic panic subplot. Visually, West and his most frequent cinematographer Eliot Rockett rely heavily on 1980s tropes like grainy film stock, De Palma indebted split screens, fast edits, practical in-camera effects, and aspect ratio changes aplenty. Like a businessman in a nose candy store, West peppers his latest with more references and homages to 80s classics than one could every hope to count in a single viewing. It’s like watching an homage to film nerds and genre buffs that’s as briskly packed with “blink and you’ll miss it” references and callbacks as a Mel Brooks or Zucker Brothers film is crammed with jokes and sight gags.

But there’s also a constant risk of West’s eclectic vision becoming too much of a good thing. Whenever MaXXXine sticks to its primary focus and storyline, the results are some of West’s best work. Whenever it comes time for the filmmaker to revel in the world they have created here, the results can sometimes come across as pandering and exhausting. Unlike the other films that make up this trilogy (which could very well keep expanding if this entry is even a minor success), MaXXXine doesn’t have a satisfyingly put together course of events. It bounces all over the place, building itself around a twist that doesn’t have nearly the impact it should once all has been finally revealed and West launches into a weirdly mid-tempo conclusion instead of an impressive send off. So much energy has been put into ensuring MaXXXine has period detail and a bunch of recognizable actors playing eccentric characters that the story often gets lost in the shuffle.

Goth continues to shine as the recurrent lead of the series, and while her work here isn’t as impressive as her tandem roles in X or the immersive characterization she achieved with her tour de force turn in Pearl, there’s no denying the effectiveness of Maxine’s brash swagger and repressed vulnerability. Bacon’s full on ham performance as the scumbag dick is a major highlight (just as over the top as his other villainous role in the new Beverly Hills Cop film, which is also out this week), as is the work of Giancarlo Esposito as the “good” scumbag, Maxine’s agent, lawyer, and fixer. The biggest presence here and the lion’s share of performative praise, however, belongs to Debicki, who brings a calculated iciness and confidence to her role as a demanding female filmmaker in a male dominated world. Whenever Goth and Debicki share the screen together, West happens into moments of creative tension that are just as effective at heightening the overall atmosphere as the lovingly recreated exploitation movie tropes. It’s just a shame that other noteworthy performers (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale as a pair of NYPD homicide detectives, Halsey as one of Maxine’s work colleagues, Lily Collins as the actress who starred in the first Puritan film, and Moses Sumney as a kindly video store clerk) are tasked with low substance bit parts that barely move the plot’s needle.

It ends up being West’s unlikely and pleasantly unexpected subtext that makes MaXXXine a minor success rather than a near miss. As much as West likes to revel in the visual decadence of the 1980s and the fondness so many who lived through it have for various pop culture touchstones, MaXXXine is just as much of a sharp condemnation of the American years under Ronald Reagan as they are a celebration of its aesthetics. At every point in the narrative, West makes it known that the 1980s were a terrible time for women in particular, but also for anyone trying to be a decent human being. There’s a sadness and resignation to a lot of the depravity on display in MaXXXine, making West’s observations work both dramatically and satirically. Even by the midpoint of the decade, the characters in West’s vision have grown cynical and hardened to the violence around them. It’s a nation yearning for advancement, but stuck in a system of habits and practices that feed into humanity’s worst impulses. This sense of knowing critique makes MaXXXine a smart film about sleazy people, and keeps the viewer invested, potentially without them even realizing that the undercurrent is propping up everything around it.

If this does turn out to be the final entry in the series, MaXXXine sends things out on a note that isn’t the best, but certainly interesting and entertaining enough for moviegoers who are into this sort of thing to get behind it. It’s hard to tell where things would go from here is West and Goth decide to pick up their collaboration again somewhere down the road, but there’s enough proof in these movies that even if they aren’t topping what they’ve done before, they’ll still come up with something intriguing.

MaXXXine opens in theatres everywhere on Thursday, July 4, 2024.

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