de facto film reviews 2 stars

Typically, the third film in a trilogy is given the most difficult task. Having to conclude the overarching story told over the previous two films is no easy task, and having to deliver on audiences predetermined expectations comes with its own baggage. Even great films like The Dark Knight Rises and Return of the Jedi have been dumped on for not stacking up to their predecessors. Finally arriving is the conclusion to filmmaker Ti West’s X trilogy. West, an indie filmmaker who made a name for himself with chilling, understated horror gems such as The House of the Devil and The Sacrament, took his passion for classic exploitation cinema with X, a highly entertaining and finely crafted throwback slasher. His subversive and demented prequel Pearl took the tragic villain from X and gave her a sympathetic origin story, set in 1918. His latest, set in the mid-80’s, squanders nearly all the goodwill given from its predecessors, in an undercooked and empty conclusion to an otherwise exceptional trilogy.

Courtesy A24

The year is 1985, and American Exceptionalism is in full swing. Reaganomics, drugs and satanic panic flood the news airwaves as the Night Stalker roams the streets of Los Angeles. Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) is now living in LA as a full-fledged adult film star and peep show performer looking to make her big break into studio films. A successful audition lands her a coveted role in the horror film “The Puritan 2”, directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki). As the city fears for safety amid the terrorization of the Night Stalker killer, a number of Maxine’s fellow colleagues have wound up dead with satanic markings left on their bodies, while Maxine begins receiving threats on her doorstep with evidence of her fateful encounter on that Texas farm in 1979. Also sniffing on Maxine’s trail are two detectives, Williams (Michelle Monaghan) and Torres (Bobby Cannavale), who are investigating the murders.

While Ti West’s X was his homage to 70’s slashers and Pearl was his throwback to classic technicolor melodramas, MaXXXine is his love letter to 80’s sleazecore. More ambitious on a technical level, West’s filmmaking craft is on full display with plenty of showy oners and camera tricks that do feel inspired, including notable homages to films like Body DoubleBlow Out, even a a black glove-donning killer straight out of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. West’s confidence behind the camera has never been more apparent than it is here. He moves the camera with swagger and achieves a number of striking compositions.

Whereas West took great care in upending the many archetypes of  70’s exploitation with X, he largely falls back on clichés here. West attempts to weave in a whodunnit giallo, a meta behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood, a statement on 80’s satanic panic and a character study on Maxine all wrapped up within a grimy 80’s pastiche. In trying to cram in every loose idea or plot thread he can, West, instead, overcrowds his film, leaving one big, unsatisfying mess. West is a filmmaker who has a firm understanding of the genre and cinema as a whole, which lends itself nicely to the many details in the mise en scène. There are extended sequences in MaXXXine taking place on studio backlots and film sets. The classic Bates Motel set is even used for an entertaining chase scene. However, the nods and homages don’t offer anything fresh and settle on being cutesy. West is clearly reaching for something akin to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but comes closer to Scream 3. None of the many characters introduced or overarching themes presented are given the development necessary to land.

Courtesy A24

Pearl retroactively added greater depth to X, making it a richer experience with subsequent viewings, while MaXXXine fails to add any meaningful substance or compelling new elements. At the core of MaXXXine is a film with far too many ideas on its mind, and isn’t able to say any of them eloquently. West opens the film with the Bette Davis quote “in this business, until you’re known as a monster, you’re not a star”, but unfortunately that’s all West has to say here. It’s the same old cliché of Hollywood’s underbelly, where doing what it takes to be famous is the same as literally selling your soul to the devil. The initial premise comes with some intriguing concepts, particularly in how West uses the backdrop of a notable period of time similar to Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, where true crime intersects, and directly impacts, the film’s characters. However, Lee’s film found a compelling throughline between real-life crime, sexuality and the period setting. West seems more interested in window dressing than digging deep into his setting.

Perhaps the film’s biggest sin is making its titular character uninteresting. Maxine was introduced in X as a fierce and assertive presence. For most of this new film, she’s more reactive and isn’t given any interesting new arcs or meaningful development. Mia Goth is unsurprisingly great as the character and can’t help but carry the film along through its weakest moments, but she’s shortchanged by a dull narrative. The opening scene of the film features Maxine at an audition, with the audition itself performed in a single take, showcasing the versatility of Goth’s abilities. The film concludes with a disaster of a final act, full of lame reveals and sloppily staged confrontations, of which even Goth can’t save. The big reveal to the whodunnit feels lazily conceived and adds up to little in terms of weight or satisfaction. It’s a shame as West gathers a sizable ensemble cast who put in good work. Kevin Bacon munches on the scenery as a threatening southern-fried PI, dressed exactly like Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes from Chinatown, who shows up with dirt on Maxine. Giancarlo Esposito is steely and cunning as Maxine’s loyal agent. Singer Halsey has a lively bit role as one of Maxine’s doomed cohorts. Moses Sumney is one of the few naturalistic characters as Maxine’s close friend who operates an adult video store.

Courtesy A24

MaXXXine is precisely what X and Pearl did not feel like, which is glossy, empty pastiche. Writer/director Ti West stuffs this trilogy capper with far too many elements that never coalesce into a cohesive whole. Lame twists, a whodunnit that simply drops the ball and a dire final act further sinks this deeply unsatisfying conclusion to West’s trilogy. Consider this 2024’s biggest cinematic disappointment. 

MaXXXine is now playing in theaters.