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MaXXXine review: a bold, absorbing horror adventure

Mia Goth points a gun in MaXXXine.
“There has never been a movie like MaXXXine, and there likely never will be again.”
Pros
  • Mia Goth's transformative, beautifully muted star performance
  • Ti West's propulsive editing and direction
  • Eliot Rockett's '80s Hollywood-inspired cinematography
Cons
  • An overstuffed screenplay
  • Several superfluous, forgettable supporting characters
  • An uneven balance of comedy and drama throughout

MaXXXine plays by its own rules. The third — and likely final — chapter in director Ti West and star Mia Goth’s X trilogy is a hodgepodge of recognizable genres and tropes, a Frankensteinian hybrid of influences that should not go together. Quentin Tarantino would be proud. The film picks back up with Maxine Minx, Goth’s final girl from X, but gone is the late-1970s seediness of that 2022 slasher flick. In its place, West has opted for an even meaner, more cynical perverseness that suits MaXXXine‘s 1985 Hollywood setting like a black leather glove. This isn’t West’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Wizard of Oz. It’s Mulholland Drive as directed by Brian De Palma.

Unlike in David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece, the horrors lurking around MaXXXine‘s L.A. street corners and in its labyrinthine hills are immediately identifiable. They’re not specters of untold origin or purpose. They’re serial killers, lecherous detectives, and reactionary Bible thumpers riding a wave of Satanic panic. Think Buster Keaton cosplayers wielding switchblades. If that suggests a slightness, that’s because MaXXXine is a decidedly shallow exercise — even by its trilogy’s standards — in cinematic pastiche. It feels less complete than Pearl, West’s X prequel. It’s also more purely fun and entertaining than both earlier films.

Mia Goth walks across a studio parking lot in MaXXXine.
Don Lens / A24

MaXXXine opens with its scrappy protagonist getting the big break she’s long desired. After moving to Los Angeles and making a living starring in adult films, Maxine gets cast in The Puritan II, a sequel to a schlocky horror B-movie directed by the equally ambitious Elizabeth Bender (a commanding, icy Elizabeth Debicki). Her chance at Hollywood stardom is threatened, though, by the ongoing murders of the serial killer known as the Night Stalker and by untimely reminders of the blood-soaked Texas nightmare she survived in X. Whereas Goth’s Pearl was haunted to the point of madness by the future she knew deep down she’d never have, Maxine is plagued by everything she’s survived. The character is older and quieter than she was in X. Goth carries herself in such a way that you can feel Maxine’s early-30s desperation and her fear that her dreams won’t come true sticking to her like layers of sweat.

The actress functions as the point of gravity around which everything in MaXXXine revolves. West, who wrote, directed, and edited the film himself, surrounds her with more eccentric characters than he knows what to do with. There’s Leon (Moses Sumney), a horror-obsessed video store clerk; John Labat (Kevin Bacon), a Southern private detective with a perpetually broken nose; and Detectives Torres (Bobby Cannavale) and Williams (a wasted Michelle Monaghan), a pair of hard-nosed L.A. cops. Through MaXXXine‘s supporting characters, West finds different ways to pay homage to the ’80s L.A. movies that he clearly loves, but his admirable intentions don’t always produce worthwhile results. Monaghan and Cannavale’s detectives seem particularly out of place in a film that is already overstuffed and unsure of what comedic or dramatic note to strike with them.

The film finds greater success in the characters that are more keyed into its heightened sense of savage humor, like Molly Bennett (a scene-stealing Lily Collins), the hyper, quick-to-give-advice original star of The Puritan; Teddy Knight (Giancarlo Esposito), Maxine’s silver-haired, mobster-esque agent; and Debicki’s no-nonsense Elizabeth. They fit well within a film that is well-paced and feels — for both better and worse — like it was constructed without any concerns about its audience’s expectations. As much of an amalgamation as it is of other movies, MaXXXine could have only been born out of West and Goth’s unique partnership, which has now produced three films that have felt progressively less bound by standard genre conventions.

Giancarlo Esposito and Mia Goth stand in a junkyard together in MaXXXine.
Justin Lubin / A24

In Pearl, West and Goth combined the aesthetic of a 1940s and ’50s family film with the unvarnished story of a young girl losing her mind. The result was a one-of-a-kind surrealist horror movie that managed to tap into the sense of hopelessness and frustration that has long been lurking beneath America’s technicolor surface. MaXXXine, conversely, isn’t as scary or viscerally upsetting as Pearl, nor does it feel as formally bracing. Eliot Rockett’s grainy, alternately sun-soaked and neon-lit cinematography convincingly recreates the look of the mid-’80s films that inspired MaXXXine. West, meanwhile, fills it with De Palma-esque Steadicam one-shots of characters moving breathlessly from one place to another and close-ups of knives slashing.

These stylistic choices inject West’s X sequel with a propulsive, kinetic energy that keeps it alive and pulsing even in its least effective moments. There is, however, a disconnect between MaXXXine‘s style and its story that not only separates it from Pearl, but prevents it from matching that film’s power. West is knowingly pulling from the L.A. crime thrillers and lurid slasher movies of the 1980s here, but MaXXXine isn’t either of those things. It’s not a straightforward horror film, though there are numerous moments of practically rendered butchery, and it also isn’t a hard-boiled crime movie. The film’s aesthetic, therefore, doesn’t enhance through reinforcement nor juxtaposition Maxine’s almost-hero’s journey tale of redemption and growth.

The movie is ultimately indefinable, and when it works, that feels intentional. When it doesn’t, it feels like West was simply overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of visual and cultural material that MaXXXine‘s setting gave him. The film feels both emptily derivative and singular. Horror fans who go into it expecting to have their hunger for another bloody slasher thriller fully sated will be disappointed. There has never been a movie like MaXXXine before, though, and there never will be again. It’s exhilarating to watch it march so steadily to the beat of its own, predictably synth soundtrack — even when you do also find yourself yearning for it to give you something more substantial to hold on to.

A woman walks the red carpet and blows a kiss.
A24

During a mid-film golf cart ride with Goth’s Maxine, Debicki’s Elizabeth calls The Puritan II a “B-movie with A+ ideas.” It’s a catchy pitch, but one that doesn’t quite fit MaXXXine. The movie is too indulgent and superficial, and its themes too explicit. A better description might be a “B-movie executed with A-grade style.” It’s a trashy affair — a pop horror comedy that uses Hollywood’s past as a backdrop for its heroine’s unlikely ascension, but that has little to say about its many references. Fortunately, depth isn’t the only determining factor of success in Hollywood. A film must also have the belief and confidence in itself that’s necessary to make everyone else pay attention, and that’s something MaXXXine has in spades.

MaXXXine hits theaters on July 5.

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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