US (2022) Dir. Ti West
People who are driven by their libidos have a hard time of it since they desire constant gratification which makes many of them unpleasant to be around through their lustful urges. It’s no usually something worth dying for but life can take some very unexpected turns…
1979 and film producer Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) has assembled a small crew, including his girlfriend Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), to drive to a farm in Texas where they will make an adult film, hoping to capitalise on the burgeoning home video market. The director RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell) is a film student who thinks he can make an arty porn film, supported by his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) who does the sound.
Maxine’s co-stars Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi) round off the group who arrive at the homestead of elderly farmer Howard (Stephen Ure), who doesn’t seem to approve of Wayne but takes his money anyway. His lone request is not to disturb his wife, Pearl – which she doesn’t make easy for them by showing up before them, which they unfortunately pay for with their lives.
Sex and horror go together. Director Ti West certainly seems to think so in this homage of sorts to the slasher films of the 80s and the skin flicks of the 70s with X, a title with many meanings to it. In the story, it refers to the “X factor” that Wayne says Maxine has; it might refer to the certificate horror films used to get here in the UK (and maybe in the US as well); or it’s a reference to the XXX rating synonymous with blue movies.
It sounds like two specific audiences are being catered for with this film, but this is at least true for one of them, and I’m sure you already know which one that is. West splits the story into two parts: the first half is devoted to the making of the adult movie, the second the gore and violence. And it is interesting how the sex and horror do actually intertwine per the narrative of the authentically flimsy plot, though not in a way many will be prepared for.
Like many films, West opens with the aftermath to inform us we are in for a gruesome ride before skipping back in time 24 hours to when Wayne and five filthy companions let their burlesque club in one part of Texas to drive to Houston for the film shoot. Maxine is a starlet who feels she deserves a good life for reasons not discussed. All we know is she is a coke addict who screws for a living and Wayne has promised to make her a star in this field as she has “it” in his eyes.
Bobby-Lynne is an archetypal blonde bimbo, yet possesses quite the philosophical take on sex as a commodity. She is mindful her looks won’t last forever and since they delight so many people and help them get their rocks off, she wants to exploit them while she still can and reap the rewards later on. The lone on-screen stud Jackson is later revealed as a former Vietnam vet, looking to put those horrors behind him and get his rewards the best way he knows how.
West does give the horndogs what they want with the filming of two scenes with each girl and Jackson – all done on the quiet as not to offend Howard – but then puts the breaks on as nervy Lorraine asks how Maxine can be in a relationship with Wayne and still sleep with other men. For Wayne, the camera I the difference, whilst Bobby-Lynne again proffers a balanced rationale, enough to make Lorraine ask to be in the film, which starts a row with RJ, who flat out refuses to let her.
You can probably see where this is going next and no, it is not a detailed discussion on RJ’s hypocrisy. Unfortunately, the characters are such blatant sketches we don’t really bother to ask questions about any of their decisions as we now we won’t get an answer – and not just because there is a culling of the cast on its way. But what causes it is a twist that for some might be more horrific to comprehend than the actual graphic atrocities shown.
One by one the youngsters are offed in a violent manner, with a lone exemption on the grounds of them “being special” (big clue there), but this doesn’t work out so well. Gore fans will need to be patient as the brutality doesn’t happen until almost an hour into the film; prior to this, the most upsetting imagery is a mangled cow that had been hit by a truck. That said, the explicit chills are infrequent, allowing them to have greater impact when they do occur, with one in particular definitely not for the squeamish.
Headed by British actress Mia Goth, who has two roles – the second is an astounding performance – the cast seem to be acutely aware of the tone West wanted as a 70s homage, and whilst coming across as caricatures is deliberate, it works best this way. West also edited the film, evident in how much the editing is integral to the atmosphere building as well as moving the story forward, such as the use of split screen relaying two concurrent events, or the chilling tease of Maxine becoming lunch for an alligator.
For those who may view X as an atonal film playing to base audiences, there is hidden in plain sight, a hint of what West may be addressing – a TV evangelist sermonising against the sexually active as sinners of the world. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to add any last minute gravitas or cerebral weight to it, so this is best enjoyed for what it is – an average slasher film homage with nudity, whose credence is in the dutifully replicated aesthetic of yesteryear.