'MaXXXine' Lacks Moxie

Directed by Ti West

Starring Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Simon Prast, Kevin Bacon, Giancarlo Esposito

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Alisha MughalPublished Jul 3, 2024


In California in the mid-'80s, a serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker hunted through San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles, committing brutal sexual assaults and murders that terrified the public. The killer, Richard Ramirez, who was apprehended by an astounding communal effort by citizens, held the public, specifically women of all ages, hostage with his indiscriminate and opportunistic violence.

California (and, indeed, much of America) was lousy with anxieties at the time. Fears for and about the female body, women's autonomy, gender dynamics and sex were swirling and sloshing around in the American capitalist patriarchy's mind — which was predominantly afraid of losing, and therefore preoccupied with maintaining — its power.

Ti West's MaXXXine takes place in this California, within the hulking shadow of the Night Stalker's threat and the increasing industrialization of the hardcore porn industry. The film roves through the gritty side streets of Hollywood in the mid-'80s, futilely aspiring toward its glitter. Mia Goth's Maxine Minx has come a step closer to her dream of universal fame. The young actress has spent the six years following the slashing horror depicted in 2022's X diligently working as a showgirl and in a peepshow emporium called Show World (a fictitious California equivalent to New York City's notorious Show World Center), all while determinedly auditioning for Hollywood parts.

The film, set in 1985, opens with Maxine landing a non-hardcore role: she will star in The Puritan II, an exploitation sequel directed by Elizabeth Debicki's Elizabeth Bender. As Maxine prepares for her starring role as a scream queen, and as the Night Stalker remains active in L.A., another killer begins hunting people close to Maxine, and threatens to end Maxine's career before it fully takes off by revealing her past (that is, what occurred in X).

Elizabeth picks Maxine for the lead role in her film out of a group of various blondes because she notices Maxine's confidence, which was apparent from X's first beat because it was baked into her by her televangelist father and gained a certain edge by the end of that film — a confidence that Maxine opens MaXXXine wearing brazenly and arrogantly. Maxine always knew she was going to be a star, and now, having landed a legit role, feels that it's just a matter of time until she is more famous than Marilyn Chambers, one of the few hardcore actresses to find success in mainstream films.

Elizabeth takes the young actress under her wing, understanding the importance of the role to Maxine's career and making a point of taking every opportunity to teach Maxine the importance of taking the role seriously and putting in hard work. Elizabeth ensures, that if Maxine follows her advice, she will eventually go on to find lasting success in Hollywood.

In one scene of such tutelage, Elizabeth takes Maxine on a golf-cart tour of the Universal Studios backlot, and, as the pair drive through the sets that made up the Golden Age of Hollywood, the director says that the film she is making, although a B-movie, will have A-movie sensibilities. That is, though it's a genre film, it will have a lofty and big-budget-film philosophy; the film, like Maxine, aims for mainstream fame.

It's a poignant statement, because MaXXXine itself is an A-movie trying to be a B-movie. The film is beautiful to look at — all blistering celluloid neon with a delicious '80s soundtrack. MaXXXine is a sensual delight as it brings to mind '80s giallo and exploitation films like Italian director Lucio Fulci's 1982 movie The New York Ripper, and Robert Vincent O'Neil's 1983 film Angel. But, by referencing these films, MaXXXine paradoxically reveals itself to be inferior to them. It aspires toward a kind of sleaze that its endemic A-class circuitry keeps it from ever attaining.

The film's core misstep is believing that these genres didn't have a meaningful message or thesis. A film like The New York Ripper made trenchant points about society's disdain of sexually active women, expressing in a colourful and enigmatic manner the ways in which society hates women who enjoy sex like men. And a film like Angel presented sex work with rare intricacy and understanding, highlighting with tenable heft the violence sex workers face.

Often, exploitation films, working outside of the mainstream machine, had the space to explore verboten topics — such as women's textured desires and sex work as a choice — in a more literal and audacious manner than big-budget Hollywood movies.

MaXXXine, in comparison to '80s exploitation films, looks stunningly similar, but falls short of their moxie. West's undertaking is very much a mainstream movie: too shy to say anything definitive or subversive, too hesitant to make any of the bold claims an exploitation film would have made. MaXXXine is very much a Hollywood product — an A-movie. The film doesn't seem to be saying much. Narrative points feel haphazardly thrown together all for the sake of looking like a B-movie, to the effect that they feel unimportant and ring hollow.

The film opens with a famous Bette Davis quote: "Until you're known in my profession as a monster, you're not a star." It's a hefty quotation, no doubt containing much of the larger-than-life Davis's understanding of gender dynamics in Hollywood, but MaXXXine takes it literally. The kind of exploitation film MaXXXine wants to be is a revenge thriller, and, accordingly, it directs that, for Maxine to succeed in her goal of fame, she needs to become a monster, turn around and defeat the killer standing in her way.

But the thing is, we have already seen Maxine exact revenge — in X, she defeats Pearl and rides toward L.A. more brazen than when she began the film, having seen her ruthless potential. If the film's core message seems to be that Hollywood makes monsters of all those who want to succeed in it, then it is redundant, because Maxine has already revealed herself to be monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous edge she has is why she is cast in Puritan II at the film's very beginning.

It could be said that the film is about the irony of the American Dream — something impossibly beautiful that demands ugliness. By juxtaposing Maxine's Hollywood goals against the workings of the killer she needs to become, the film tries to gesture toward the idea that success in America is not possible without something nefarious in its undertow. But if this balance of success with depravity is what the film attempts to demystify, it doesn't succeed, because, strangely, Goth's Maxine is severely under-drawn, almost muted, and therefore unable to stake a claim in anything at all.

Goth shone loudly in Pearl (officially the second instalment of West's trilogy, but chronologically the prequel to X), unabashedly taking up space, and had meaningful work to perform in X, but doesn't seem to have much to do here, and she gets lost in the fray and play of hazy lights and the filmmaker's attempts to flex stylistically. In X, Goth as both Maxine and the older Pearl was given interesting work as both characters were challenged, frustrated and made to trudge through complex reckonings.

Pearl presented a deliciously monstrous-feminine character, while X offered compelling ideas about the aging body and desire — ideas that Goth deftly and hypnotically carried. In MaXXXine, though, the titular character is almost secondary to visual flair, persisting flatly in the singular aim to make it big. It's not even evident what she thinks of Elizabeth Bender's advice, or of the women who are murdered around her, striking a boring mid-point register between selfish and caring. Things remain so misty here, no idea or thesis is confidently stated — or, at least not as confidently as West conveys the visual style. The film is bloated with references to Alfred Hitchcock and the horror films that came after him, all communicated with stunning production.

The curious thing is that, aside from Maxine's established monstrosity, the film doesn't depict Hollywood as a monstrous being, or a salivating maw demanding its entrants become likewise horrifying. (If anything, it's fawning.) As soon as Maxine enters mainstream Hollywood, the environment around her is jarringly kind. Maxine's director immediately takes her under her wing, and the other actresses she meets are also immensely kind, taking every opportunity to pass down their learned wisdom to Maxine. The film seems to show that hard work pays off in Hollywood: Maxine spent years working her butt off, and she finally is able to get a step closer to her dream.

MaXXXine's version of Hollywood sizzles at the periphery of public protests against Hollywood's depiction of sex, but nothing meaningful is said about these protests, either. Through the juxtaposition of Maxine's televangelist father on one hand, and the role she is to play as a Puritan woman who rejoices in bloodshed on the other, the film half-heartedly tries to make the point that, even as America is obsessed with sex, it gestures toward indignent moral and religious piety. There's so much going on in MaXXXine, and nothing is bravely concluded about any of it, because its main concern is stylistic finesse.

I've spent a week thinking about this movie, and I feel immensely confused about what it's trying to say. Through its substance, the film contains the beginnings of many interesting ideas, but never carries any argument to completion. And through style, the film makes many references seemingly just for the sake of it. The allusions to the fascinating and complex 1972 hardcore film Behind the Green Door, about a woman taken against her will to a sex club so that she can receive pleasure like never before, are dizzyingly abundant, with the lens lingering on a literal green door at one point. But it's unclear what the film is trying to say about this movie, other than that it is aware of its existence.

MaXXXine isn't subversive or exciting like an exploitation film — it's just pretending to be one. It seems too shy to dive headfirst into the sleaze it so desperately wants to wear. MaXXXine merely flirts stylistically with the giallo, exploiting the mode for visual brownie points without actually getting its hands dirty. The movie maintains a clean distance from the genre's full sensual indulgence, as if it's saying to mainstream Hollywood itself: I can be freaky, but, don't worry, not that freaky.

The film's singular thematic success is its punctuation of Maxine's story with the continuously updated news about the Night Stalker. We see there is mass concern for women as a serial killer prowls the city, a concern that is shown running concurrently with a success-obsessed system that uses and exploits women for its own aims. But whether this juxtaposition is intentional is unclear — it could just as well be that mention of the Night Stalker is meant to complicate the identity of the killer targeting Maxine. MaXXXine is hollow, a vast amount of exterior beauty masking so much air, so many poorly actualized ideas.

(VVS Films)

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