‘MaXXXine’ is a sleazy good time, but misses boldness

Mia Goth in Ti West's "MaXXXine" (Photo courtesy of A24).
Mia Goth in Ti West’s “MaXXXine” (Photo courtesy of A24).

Ti West’s “X” trilogy has always been about movies – making them, watching them, starring in them. But none is so connected to Hollywood lore as “MaXXXine.”

West’s third installment comes after both “X” and “Pearl,” but is a direct sequel to that first film, following porn actress Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) as she tries to make a name for herself in 1980s Hollywood. A ways through the film, director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) takes Maxine – set to star in Bender’s new horror film and still traumatized by the farm massacre she escaped in “X” – on a drive around the studio backlot. Throughout “MaXXXine,” West doesn’t hedge about his love for this era of Hollywood, or the sleazy, hazy glitz of 1980s B movies, but Bender’s monologue as she takes Maxine on a spin starts to pin down the film’s larger ideas.

As they roll around the lot, Bender speechifies about Hollywood’s disdain for true artists, about her desire to make a “B movie with A movie ideas.” She informs Maxine that because of her background in porn, the studio didn’t want her for the role, and in trying to determine whether Maxine has what it takes to succeed in an industry that doesn’t want her to, she asks her one simple question: Are you ruthless?

“MaXXXine” slots into that “B movie with A movie ideas” mold, and one of those big ideas is this cutthroat ruthlessness that permeates our concept of Hollywood. The movie opens with two major quotes, one being Maxine’s own refrain throughout the film series (“I will not accept a life I do not deserve”), and the other from Bette Davis – “In this business, until you’re known as a monster, you’re not a star.” While “MaXXXine” is tremendous fun, most of its big ideas are too varied, too glossed over to ever zero in on something truly bold. However, West gets closest when he pokes fun at this idea of monster and star as interchangeable.

“MaXXXine” picks up six years after “X,” smack dab in the middle of all the great things the 1980s had to offer; censorship, the Satanic Panic, tirades against exploitation films, and the reign of the serial killer Richard Ramirez – better known as the Night Stalker. Maxine is still affected by her experience in “X” at the hands of a homicidal elderly couple (one of whom’s backstory is given in the trilogy’s second installment, “Pearl”), but has fought her way to a starring role through sheer confidence and grit alone. As Maxine’s star rises, someone who knows too much about her past is lurking around the corner ready to expose her – but she won’t go down without a fight.

Even if some of the ideas in “MaXXXine” don’t run too deep, from a stylization standpoint, it’s one hell of a good time. The aesthetic that West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett bring to life is all muted neons and seedy glamor, with homages to horror films popping up every which way out of the woodwork, from Dario Argento to Alfred Hitchcock. Everything, from the set decoration to Marie-An Ceo’s costumes – all acid wash and sequins  – screams the performative flash of the 1980s, but with a grimy underbelly. “Fascinating that something can look so believable when in reality, it’s all a facade,” Bender says while driving around the studio lot. That quote pertains to every frame of “MaXXXine,” the film an interesting mix of dingy and alluring, the glitz only just obscuring the darkness underneath.

That could also apply to Maxine herself. In one of the film’s best sequences, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood plays as Maxine – teased, crimped hair and a pink stripe drawn across her eyes like she’s a pro-wrestling villain – lures the private detective on her tail (Kevin Bacon) through a strobe light-infested club. While still haunted by what she went through in “X,” Maxine is not content to play the part of a delicate flower, and is happy to relish in a bit of violence when it suits her. After she nails an audition, she struts by a group of other hopefuls and tells them all they might as well go home. When a Buster Keaton impersonator follows her into an alleyway with bad intentions, she lets him think he has her cornered before busting his balls – literally.

Maxine’s view of the world doesn’t change no matter the situation – whether you’re gunning for a movie role or dealing with a creep, it’s every woman for herself. When people around her start showing up dead, Detectives Williams and Torres (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale) try to strong-arm Maxine into helping with the case. Both detectives are in their own version of a cop movie – Cannavale playing up male bravado while Monaghan plays the role of a haggard female officer deeply affected by the violence of her job. At one point, Williams pleads with Maxine, telling her that with her help, they might be able to save the next girl before she’s killed. “Maybe she should save herself,” Maxine scoffs.

It’s a bold move, to feature a female protagonist who has been through something traumatic, and yet refuses to let that soften her in any way, refuses to let that turn her into a victim or a savior. West’s application of the sort of single-mindedness of ambition we see in Hollywood stories to Maxine’s ways of dealing with violence is a fascinating way of making a Hollywood-based horror movie, of really bringing to life that Bette Davis quote that opens the film.

Unfortunately, as “MaXXXine” nears its end, West hedges on that choice. Maxine might not want to view herself as a victim or a savior, but in its third act, the film chooses for her. At the end of the day, “MaXXXine” is unwilling to let its protagonist be 100% ruthless – or grapple with what that could mean if she was.

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