Writer-director Ti West has a clear, abiding affection for bygone eras when certain film genres were afforded the space to exist in their own dark ecosystem. He is an expert explicator of templates and tropes, slyly operating on the borderline between the two. Unlike Rian Johnson, who leverages similar command to jubilantly deconstruct, West is an honest adherent. Because he largely creates in a retro mode and brings a more modern sensibility to the material he develops, there’s always a waft of irony in the air. Mostly, he seemingly does his level best to honor rather than subvert. A couple decades out, after memories grow faulty enough to make cinematic chronology nebulous, an unschooled peruser who came upon it could be forgiven for thinking West’s latest, X, was made in 1979 rather than simply set there.
X concerns itself with two of the more sordid genres of the nineteen-seventies, grindhouse horror and skin-flick smut, and puts them together like chocolate and peanut butter. In the film, a troupe of aspiring filmmakers set out to make their own porno movie, hopeful that the looming home video market will open the door to more amateur productions. Since they’re shooting a script about the lascivious offspring of a farmer, they rent a guest house on an isolated Texas farm, though they remain secretive about the cinematic project, especially when the property’s elderly owner (Stephen Ure) expresses himself in especially curmudgeonly fashion upon their arrival. In films like this, secrets don’t stay hidden, and mayhem soon ensues.
West is a cunning craftsman. Even as the narrative progresses in more or less as expected, West finds novel ways to frame the gory happenings. When the film reaches the point of clicking through its creative renderings of horny young people being forcibly hurled off this mortal coil, it has a ruthless energy to it. If nothing else, West should be commended for his professionalism in adhering to a new variant on Chekhov’s gun rule that begins “If in the first act you have placed an alligator in the pond.” Before blood is spilled, the film sometimes doesn’t fully cohere. Its suspense is tepid, and its themes are muddled. West has interesting ideas, particularly about the ways in which desire outlasts physical wherewithal, but they bog down the film roughly as often as they strengthen it. The ambition is appreciated, but X is most successful when it simply gets down to its nasty business.