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Maxine goes to Hollywood

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MIA GOTH (center) in a scene from MaXXXine.

Movie ReviewMaXXXineDirected by Ti West

X had Mia Goth’s Maxine shooting a porn flick on a farm owned by elderly Pearl (also Mia Goth) at the same time she’s being stalked by a serial killer; Pearl as prequel to X sketches the eponymous woman’s life as a young farmer’s spouse in 1918, uncovering her dreams and frustrations and why Maxine’s barebones film production outfit fascinates her so.

X was Ti West’s tribute parody of 1970s cinema, channeling in particular The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through the making of a porn film (a genre which also experienced its golden period (Behind the Green Door, The Devil in Miss Jones) around the same time); it was stealthy fun with both Maxine and Pearl sneaking around and through farmhouse and nearby barn, peering on and tiptoeing up to each other. Maybe the high point of all the unsettlingly erotic shenanigans is Pearl climbing into bed and mashing the sleeping younger woman’s breast — Mia Goth molesting Mia Goth; could there be a more potent image of celebrity narcissism?

Pearl — easily my favorite of the three films in the series — was an even more startling portmanteau: a slasher channeling the sinuous moves of a widescreen technicolor Douglas Sirk, the idealized past slyly undercut by Sirk’s critically framing eye. Where Maxine is already debauched and only hardened by her ordeal, Pearl is an innocent (relatively speaking) raised high by her hopes, then brought to ruin by her ambition (and control-freak mother), her true nature emerging from the ashes.

MaXXXine picks up where X left off, with Maxine fleeing to 1980s Hollywood, the glitz, the glamor, the horrific bad taste all on display. Director West is channeling John Carpenter and Dario Argento and Brian De Palma now, Carpenter with his gliding camera and surgical editing, Argento with his shocking color palette, De Palma with his split screens and video footage. It’s fun to watch West making fun of pulpy 1980s moviemaking conventions and Goth’s Maxine striding through it all in tightfitting double denims and white pumps, not so much an avenging as ass-wiggling angel of death. 

Oddly there’s little sinew tying Pearl to X and MaXXXine beyond a handful of similarities to both women’s trajectories: both are driven by a hunger for stardom, both reveal hidden reserves of sensuality and violence. The biggest difference may be where either woman lands: Pearl lying before the front door of her farmhouse, Maxine living in an apartment above a video rental store, window facing one of the seedier sections of Hollywood Boulevard.

I mention Argento and Carpenter but really the MVP 1980s filmmaker when it came to inspiration has to be De Palma, particularly Body Double which also involved a killer, a horror film, a porn star. Wests excesses aren’t as inventive — we don’t have a giant power drill whining through a Hollywood mansion’s second floor (and a woman’s torso) and we don’t have dream sequences flitting between memory and reality in the hero’s head; I suppose many a horror bro feels disappointed at the paucity of perversion on display.

But West seems focused not so much on baroque horror or lurid thrills as he is on Maxine’s personal trajectory, trying to remain true to her character as revealed in the closing moments of X and fitfully throughout this sequel (West — along with Goth, who acts as producer — is being as coy as a professional stripteaser). Maxine, as suggested by a home movie and various news clippings, is a victim of childhood trauma and possible psychological abuse; what sets this apart from most horror films of the serial killer variety is that she’s survived and the experience has strengthened her, even emboldened her. Unlike Pearl, Maxine has had much of her vulnerable underbelly already cauterized; all that’s left is for her to cauterize the remaining soft parts for more scar tissue to grow over.

Come to think of it, there may be more to the parallels between Maxine and Pearl than meets the eye. We get hints of Maxine’s family; couldn’t Pearl’s own be West’s way of exploring that history in a roundabout manner? We see Maxine as a reflection of Pearl, more fully exposed to the modern world — younger meets older, contemporary meets retro; the scene of the two of them in bed together might hold more significance than we originally thought, might, you could argue, be the key image of the trilogy.

No Maxine isn’t a very sympathetic character; if anything she’s most sympathetic when we catch glimpses of said remaining soft parts (mainly her childhood, whatever acquaintances remain on her shrinking friends’ list, and the moment when she reaches out to her lawyer Teddy Night [an enjoyable Giancarlo Esposito] for help) — prior to welding armor plating over them.

And Maxine has learned to fight back, unlike most female protagonists in ’80s and recent horror flicks (“You wanna know what I did to the last person that tried to kill me?”).  This is not your standard-issue scream queen virgin but a ballsy badass bitch with swagger to match — just ask private investigator John Labat (Kevin Bacon, channeling M Emmett Walsh at his most gloriously unwashed) who got a taste of Maxine’s temper, car keys clenched firmly in her fist.

The climax (skip the next three paragraphs if you plan to see the film) does call back to Pearl’s central relationship with her mother. The guiding force in our lives for good or for bad often turn out to be our parents, and Maxine for all her bravado isn’t all that different; maybe what gives her that extra bit of English is in recognizing this uncomfortable fact, and explicitly thanking her father for exactly the kind of influence he’s been in her life — compelling Maxine to flee as far as rural Texas, then Hollywood, only to have her demons (her demon) follow her there, less for a final confrontation than for therapeutic resolution.

And what of Maxine’s father, Ernest Miller, eliminating her friends — her remaining source of humanity — along the way? Our heroine is horrified, but at some level isn’t she actually grateful to him for doing what she always needed to do but had neither the ruthlessness nor inclination to? And when she stands above him and does what finally needed to be done, hasn’t she demonstrated in full the lesson he has insisted on teaching her all her life?

West has been criticized for his lack of characterization through the films; I submit that he has been indulging in characterization, through Pearl (whose life is a metaphoric commentary on Maxine’s) and through our heroine’s own choices — if, as F Scott Fitzgerald once scribbled in the notes of his final unfinished novel, that “action is character” you can catch glimpses of her character through the actions she has taken. West is being oblique, not negligent, using incident, atmosphere, and the various films’ visual styles to tease out her developing personality.

And that’s it, that’s most of what I have to say — MaXXXine may not be the goriest or most frightening or even the most intense horror of the year (though it has its moments), but I’d call it one of the more interesting, with enough freshly carved meat to chew over while walking out the theater.

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