X (2022) is a horror film of the slasher variety directed by Ti West and distributed by A24. Taking heavy inspiration from several of its predecessors like Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Psycho (1960), X situates itself in an isolated farm in rural Texas, keeping the twenty-four hour narrative relatively contained and undisturbed. The film moves generally within the formula of a slasher, introducing a Final Girl (coined by Carol Clover and referring to the ‘final’ girl that ultimately confronts the killer and succeeds in escaping the crime-scene, often the only one left to tell the story. Like a cowboy, she vanishes into the sunrise, rather than the sunset), a group of friends to be murdered one by one, and a mundane setting ready to be ripped apart by gory deaths. In an attempt to revitalize the genre, to quite literally flip some of these tropes, West tweaks the Final Girl, makes the killer an elderly couple, and focuses his themes more on aging and youth rather than violence and gender.
Opening on a serene shot of a farm through a window, the lack of movement convinces us for just a second that this film might be shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. It is immediately retro. Narratively, this is not the beginning, a fact that we soon discover when the camera slowly pushes through the window, the cops drive up to the farmhouse, and we become well aware that we are looking at a crime scene. A cop walks over a dead body, and we are reminded that they arrive just a little too late (as always). There is an ax sticking out of the front porch’s floor boards. We don’t yet know what transpired here, but we know now that it was gruesome.
The scene shifts to hands setting up a line of cocaine. The editing is harsher, more contemporary. We are now looking at a girl, Maxine (Mia Goth), pretty with swept back bangs and blue eyeshadow. She stares into a mirror alone, and in that moment we know she will be the final girl. But how does she survive? And why?
Describing the final girl, Clover writes, “We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers in the main storyline. She is intelligent, watchful, level-headed; the first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the patterns and extent of the threat; the only one, in other words, whose perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation.”
Maxine, now, has to check off a few boxes. As the film explores its introduction, these characteristics tend to drift off to the other characters. Instead of writing the friends as generally oblivious and unexplored, ready to be killed off at any moment, West makes Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) the most ‘boy-ish’ of the three girls. She is the one working behind the scenes, as she chose to help her boyfriend RJ (Owen Campbell) with a movie he is shooting. I say movie when I actually mean an artsy porno. That is how this rag-tag team of six find themselves together and alone in the guest house of a strange elderly couple. Lorraine is also dressed in long pants and a t-shirt, a much less traditionally feminine outfit when compared to the other two girls. Each girl is also there with a male counterpart: an older man that runs the show, Wayne (Martin Henderson), the suave pornstar and only black man of the group, Jackson (Kid Cudi), and an amateur director with big dreams, RJ. As each character is introduced, we begin to wonder the order in which they will die, and by whom.
This question is answered somewhat in the following scene. We meet the owner of the farmhouse, an extremely old man (old in the way that suggests special effects makeup) with a penchant for rifles, a sort of attitude that screams “shoot now, ask questions later.” With a gun pointed to his face, Wayne calms the man down, simply explaining that they are the group that is renting the guest house for the weekend. His charm and general cowboy-ness works, and the old man makes to show them where they will be staying. But still, the interaction leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and since we already know that this is a slasher film, we are now sure that we have just met our killer.
Yet as the group cross a field to the guest house, Maxine, now the final girl again, notices a woman standing in the window, staring at her through the swaying lace of her curtains, for all and purposes the vision of a ghost, too old to be real. Later in the day, Maxine ventures out in simply a pair of overalls and some cowboy boots, even further cementing our perception of her as final girl. She is adventurous and curious, and even smokes cigarettes. After a dip in a nearby lake, where we see her almost get eaten by an alligator while being simultaneously completely unaware of it (minus 1 final girl point), Maxine sees the vision of the old woman she noticed earlier in the window. Maxine, visibly confused, waves half-heartedly. The woman’s stare is sweltering, especially as she motions for Maxine to follow her inside. Which Maxine does (mius another final girl point. Never follow old people into their farmhouse!).
Maxine and the old woman, who we learn is named Pearl (Mia Goth), share some lemonade. The room is dark, lights turned off and curtains drawn, the Texas sun beaming hot and heavy only through that little space where curtains meet windowsill. Maxine gulps down her lemonade, her eagerness reminding us of her youth, the chasm in between the two. The older woman gets up to show Maxine some framed photos of a much younger self, and as she stares at it we get the impression that we should be sympathetic, not creeped out. But the moment is soon lost after Pearl strokes Maxine’s skin. The old man is no longer in question. This woman will be the killer, but why focus so much on the buildup, of the reasoning behind Pearl’s violence?
Clover refers to the killer in several ways. He is “with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful.” The killer does not wait to kill, has no reason to wait. Before his first victim, he is unexplored. Clover also writes that “the killer is often unseen or barely glimpsed, during the first part of the film, and what we do see, when we finally get a good look, hardly invites immediate or conscious empathy. He is commonly masked, fat, deformed, or dressed as a woman.”
Usually, the killer’s immediate identification is with his violence. Point of view shots leave the killer’s actual body out of frame, and focus on the stalking of his victim, and then the eventual kill; the shots beg the adolescent male audience to root for him. By introducing the killer’s character in full here, by having Pearl show off nostalgic photos to the final girl, we get a different effect. The killer is not some unassuming male stabbing for the hell of it. She is a sad and extremely old woman, longing for a past that has long escaped her, wondering at the glow of youthful skin she has not seen in ages. We are meant to identify with her as a person, not a killer. Ti West has now attempted to make the killer sympathetic, but unfortunately, with the exaggerated makeup Mia Goth dons to play Pearl, her ancient-ness lacks all authenticity.
After a seriously repulsive scene in which the old couple try to have sex and fail, we finally approach the killings. We have been waiting for this, to see how each character is killed off, and in which order. We think it might take a zig-zag approach, going from boy to girl, picking the least interesting to go first.
RJ dies first after meeting the old woman at the entrance to the farm. She hugs him and attempts to kiss him, but when he pulls away she stabs him in the throat. He goes down rather quickly, but Pearl still climbs onto his chest, pulls the knife out and stabs him again and again. “The killer’s phallic purpose, as he thrusts his drill or knife into the trembling bodies of young women, is unmistakable,” Clover writes. Yet here an element of that dynamic has shifted. The killer, Pearl in this case, is still reacting for sexual reasons. Earlier in the film she witnessed some of the shooting of the porn film, and later tried to have sex with her husband but was unsuccessful. But she is also a woman, and her first victim is not the “trembling bodies of young women.” The victim is a man not even a smidge suspicious of the elderly woman before him, caught completely unawares when he is stabbed.
Wayne is killed second, stabbed through the eyes with a pitchfork. Another moment of violent thrusting for Pearl, of the stabbing so central to the slasher subgenre. Jackson is third, finally breaking the cycle. He is killed by the old man, who at this point is aware that his wife is killing people, and is also aware that he cannot allow any witnesses to leave. He shoots Jackson with his rifle, the act lacking the sexual repression of Pearl’s stabbing.
Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), the star of the porn film, is killed next when she is pushed into the lake by Pearl. The old woman watches as she is consumed by an alligator and the water thrashes red. The motivation is clear: Pearl is angry over what she can’t have, namely sexual youth. After the murders, Pearl and her husband have terrifying sex, groaning and creaking in more ways than one. Based on the previous scene with Maxine and Pearl we are uncomfortably aware of the fact that we are supposed to feel for the killer couple. Despite this, their horrible acting as quite clearly not ninety-year-olds makes this scene into a caricature of what it’s meant to be. The horror of it borders on monstrous. As someone behind me in the theater said at this moment, “that has to be the scariest part of the movie.”
At this point, only Lorraine and Maxine are left, the last two girls. I suddenly wonder if West will play another trick on me and have Maxine killed. But soon, Maxine is the only one left, and as Maxine and Pearl stare each other down, one with a pistol from the glovebox of the van and the other with the rifle, we wonder how this will end. We expect Pearl to stab in a phallic expression, but instead she fires the rifle, misses, is flung back by the force of it, and lies helpless on the ground. Maxine walks to the van, puts it in reverse, and backs over Pearl’s head. It is not a stabbing, but it is no less grotesque. Maxine drives away and suddenly we wonder how we could have ever thought she was not the final girl. With her bleached eyebrows and bloody hands, she sniffs at her palm, and we remember that she was introduced with a line of cocaine. She drives off into the sunrise, victoriously. Youth won this time around.
At the end of the film I was struck by the huge trope reversals throughout, wondering if such drastic changes were ultimately successful. The final girl was less formulaic, existing outside the parameters set by Clover. The killer was also a woman played by the same actress as the final girl, and her story was explored to a surprising extent. By making the killer be motivated by youth and aging, the more common gender themes and dynamics were stripped away. Although interesting to experience, the film attempts to do too much with its subjects. Already a comment on gender roles in slasher films, the focus shifting to “creepy old people will kill if you shoot a porno in their guest house” creates chaos. Nothing can be explored too deeply, and we are left wondering why that trope was touched at all.