Growing old is an insecurity of most people. Many of us go through life worrying how we’ll endure the physical, emotional and other impacts of old age. One of the most common consequences is unfortunately the butt of many insensitive jokes in popular culture and that is the general lack of physical intimacy or passion that can be seen in the lives of older couples. It’s not a pleasurable experience, and X’s sensitivity to the truth is one of the primary reasons it stands out to me. One of the main plot devices is an old couple’s inability to rekindle the flame of romance in their relationship. And it’s handled with care, spending time on developing a contrast between their lives and the liveliness and sensuality of the youth who hire a house on their property. There are tender moments of the old woman fondly reminiscing and longingly trying to revive the youthful exuberance that’s fallen prey to the decay of time.
Now for some context. Ti West’s X follows a group of youngsters in ‘70’s Texas, who are trying to succeed in the indie pornography industry. They go to a somewhat shady barnhouse to shoot an edgy film which has heart and story along with the pornography. The barnhouse they rent is the property of the old couple who live nearby in the same property. The man categorically requests them to stay away from the house because his wife isn’t well, and he’d appreciate it if she could be left to herself despite them having people on the property. We get a glimpse of her early on, and she’s hinted to have a shady presence. The rest of the first half is more or less focused on the shenanigans of the group as they try to create tasteful porn with the enthusiastic director harping on how this film will redefine the reputation of pornography in America. The old woman happens to fancy a young girl who wanders around, speaks to her, brings her home, tells her about her love life before the war, and then even wanders out to see what the young people are doing in the barnhouse. And then the second half begins.
I’ll let you discover what happens in the second half. Believe me, you’ll not see it coming, and the tone will completely change. It’s like two different films but beautifully conjoined to make a complete emotional narrative about the loss of youth. The best aspect about the narrative is the choice of contrasting the aged people’s lives with pornographers’. The shooting of a porn film is the perfect context to flaunt sexuality and youthful exuberance. And since it was an Indie venture, there was no studio involved, and the space for experimentation, ample. In fact a good amount of time is spent in showing the audience the scenes while they were being shot. With corny dialogue, minimal wardrobe and moody lighting, it takes you right back to the time of vintage porn and there’s something inherently romantic about the affair, a certain tenderness that lives in perfect harmony with the raw and passionate nature of the sex.
It’s because of that tenderness that you can feel the turmoil in the old woman when she catches a glimpse of them or stares longingly at the rising female pornstar. She can see her past in there, but it’s a melancholic reminiscence because it comes with the simultaneous reminder that she’ll never get it back. This is where the film’s editing is the most effective. There are direct visual parallels between the two. There are for example, scenes of both of them looking at the mirror with apprehension, the younger one giving herself a pep talk before she walks out for shooting the scene, and the older one staring at her reflection, looking for glimpses of the young girl in her. This beautifully sets up the idea that neither is effectively better off, and both are haunted by their own insecurities. However, it’s the aged person you feel for more, because the world is generally less sympathetic for them, shrugging their opinions off because they already lived their youth and shouldn’t be complaining anymore.
I’d say X’s strongest suit is its editing. It gives rise to a mesmerizing watch which you can’t take your eyes off, even during the goriest horrifying moments. The transitions seamlessly blend scenes in different locations to create an overarching suspense because the moment you feel like you can take a breath, the film cuts to a visually similar frame with another horrifying moment, and this barrage continues till about five minutes from the ending. And before the horror act starts, during the porn half of the film, the parallels are drawn to visually establish the contrast between old and young as discussed before. The innovation is primarily in the editing with the cinematography relatively straightforward except for a few drone shots and hand-held tracking shots. This keeps the viewer even more involved with the action. The editing isn’t jarring since it’s so heavy on parallels.
What’s jarring about the film is the tonal shift from sensual and provocative to horrifying and gory. It’s not smooth by any means, and there’s no time given to process it as it turns into a horror fetishist’s wet dream without respite. The couple’s story reaches a satisfying conclusion and the contrast between young and old is interestingly completed. The final scene is a perfect metaphor for the youth’s pride and its ultimate self-assertion and growth by the obliteration of what came before it. A car is involved and I believe that adds more meaning to this. It’s with the help of technological advancement that the youth often decides the fate of its previous generation. X is actually full of symbolism and decoding that would take its own article. One thing I must mention is that as an homage to classic Hollywood slashers, X is full of callbacks and references. In fact, people are comparing it to the all-time great The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One very notable reference is the one to The Shining in the following still from X which mimics the famous shot of Jack Nicholson from Kubrick's horror film.
Before leaving you with a plea to watch X, even if you aren’t a horror enthusiast, I believe it’s necessary to mention that as a sensitive piece of media, it’s a perfect mirror of the 70’s. Instead of just being straight white people, there is Kid Cudi and Jenna Ortega in the films too. And their characters aren’t just “woke insurance”. The racial stereotype in pornography which doesn’t just persist but has for that matter possibly grown today, is the reason Cudi’s character is included. The commentary is necessary and Jenna’s character being treated as an outsider by her boyfriend also speaks to how women of colour were thought of as “exotic” and expected to act according to the wishes of their significant others. So, yes, it’s sensitive, provocative, meaningful, emotional, and loads of fun for those who love horror. A24 keeps producing amazing films and X belongs with all the brilliant titles under its name. And it's definitely a must-watch for a film enthusiast!