Review: MaXXXine

The opening credit sequence of Ti West’s MaXXXine is a tasty treat, dipping its ladle into the picture’s 1985 Hollywood setting and stirring up a thick stew of Satanic Panic, coke, censorship, Reagan-era culture wars, slasher movies, real-life serial killings, and video nasties. Any viewer not already amped to see the filmmaker finish off the cinema-and-bloodshed trilogy he began with 2022’s X and Pearl will likely get there by the time that opening is over; he has so much to play with here, beyond the elegant but basically simple conceits of the first two pictures (which first merged slasher horror with ‘70s porn, and then with classic cinematic melodrama).

Alas, all of that set-up amounts to a promise that West can’t really deliver on. MaXXXine is a crushing disappointment, a handsomely mounted and finely performed actualization of a paper-thin screenplay where, for the first time, all of the filmmaker’s period touches and affectionate homages amount to little more than mere window dressing.

It’s 1985, and the “Night Stalker” serial killer is terrorizing Los Angeles. But our heroine Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), now 33, has bigger things on her mind: a big star in the adult industry, she’s auditioning for a “real movie,” a slasher sequel called The Puritan II. “I figure acting is acting,” she explains to the filmmakers. “I can do just as good a job as any of those other blondes out there.” And with that she delivers a stunning direct-to-camera monologue (a sly wink to Goth’s best scene in Pearl), chases it with a chipper “thank you!” as she wipes her tears at its conclusion, and replies with a perfectly non-plussed “Yeah, sure” when she is asked the final question of the session: “Do you mind taking your top off so we can see your breasts?” 

She gets the role, but over the course of the next several days, she’s shaken up by the murders of several people close to her, all either by the Night Stalker or a particularly grisly imitator. Someone is certainly watching her; a videotape appears at her door with footage from the aborted film she was shooting six years earlier in X, but who, and what, is a mystery… sort of. It must be said that when the reveal finally appears, it’s not much, and by the time the picture has resorted to a standard-issue cops-and-killers shoot-out, it’s quite clear that West has lost his way.

It’s not that MaXXXine is bad, not precisely; devoid of comparison to its predecessors, perhaps its errors wouldn’t seem so clear. West stages a couple of very good kills (including an early moment involving the spike of her high heels that will haunt the nightmares of most male audience members), and West’s filmmaking is inspired, with its playful use of VHS aesthetics, its copious De Palma shout-outs (its primary stylistic inspiration seems to be the filmmaker’s early-‘80s thrillers, like Body Double and Dressed to Kill), and its close-up visual references to giallo and slasher iconography.

The performances are similarly in tune. Goth is again marvelous, even when the material fails her, now an old hand at playing the character’s spiky mix of toughness, vulnerability, and sexuality. Kevin Bacon hams it up (so to speak) as an amoral private dick — his second such turn in a single week, a wise lane to pursue heading into retirement age. And Giancarlo Esposito is having a blast as Maxine’s skeezy agent, who’s willing to do just about anything to protect his client. But Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale (exciting actors both) are wasted, unable to transcend the tired cliches of their cop characters, and the Big Bad is as forgettable as he is obvious.

West has been working in the slow-boil mode since his breakthrough picture, the ’80s-set (coincidentally enough) House of the Devil 15 years ago, so viewers in the know are inclined to cut him some slack, waiting for his work to crackle and catch fire in the third act. This time, that moment never arrives; MaXXXine ends feeling, for the first time, like West has run out of gas. The always-excellent Elizabeth Debicki, as Maxine’s Puritan II director, describes her film-within-the-film as “a B movie with A ideas.” That was an apt description of this series—until now.

“MaXXXine” is in theaters Friday.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

Back to top