Did Ti West cut an entire gay subplot from Maxxxine?

Ti West’s new horror-thriller Maxxxine, the third movie in his trilogy starting with X and Pearl, includes an odd detail that’s easy to miss, since no one ever remarks on it: The title character’s best friend, Leon (Moses Sumney), has a cast on one arm. It’s grubby and inked-up, suggesting that his arm was broken far enough in the past that he’s had plenty of time to get it signed and dirty from use, but not far enough back that it’s healed. On top of that, his glasses are broken and held together with prominently placed tape. What happened to him isn’t part of this story — but there are hints of it on the screen.

Viewers learn very little about Leon over the course of Maxxxine, even though he’s clearly meant to be a vital part of her life, as one particularly emotional scene suggests. Piecing together what we do learn about him — particularly from elements that don’t entirely add up unless you’re reading between the lines — it feels like either Maxxxine had a Leon subplot that was trimmed out at some point, or West wants us to assemble the puzzle pieces to pick up on what’s going on with him. Let’s dig into the clues.

[Ed. note: Major spoilers ahead for Maxxxine.]

[embedded content]

X, an ode to 1970s horror movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, centers on the doomed production of a porn movie being shot on a rural Texas farm in 1979. Its featured player: Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a ruthlessly ambitious wannabe movie star whose motto is “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” In that movie, Maxine survives a massacre of the film crew, engineered in part by one of the embittered, elderly farm owners, Pearl (also played by Goth). The second film, Pearl, is a flashback to when Pearl (Goth again) was young and had her own ambitions of stardom, and it’s visually styled after classic ’50s musicals.

Maxxxine, taking place after Maxine’s escape in X and her arrival in Hollywood, is set in 1985. Like the other two movies, it takes visual and narrative inspiration from movies made during the era it portrays — particularly Brian De Palma’s 1984 slasher-thriller Body Double. That becomes relevant to the Leon story in part because West says the movie was inspired by the era’s moral panic. As West put it in a Q&A after a recent advance screening of the movie:

[Maxxxine is] reminiscent of the boom of home video [in the 1980s] and things like that. In 1985, there was a tremendous amount of moral outcry about censorship, and about lyrics and music leading to people killing each other and committing suicide, and in horror movies being too violent, or movies being too violent in general. Or kids having access to things they shouldn’t have. And so there’s this weirdly puritanical moment in the middle of the ’80s, in reaction to things like “video nasties” in England.

That moral panic over screen violence conflated with a moral panic over the AIDS epidemic, and a backlash against gay Americans stemming from fear of AIDS. All of which leaves Leon in an era where queer people on screen in mainstream movies were likely to be either predators or victims. That was especially true in horror movies, which tended to handle them in notoriously exploitative ways. And that’s relevant because, while no one in Maxxxine ever says the word “gay,” Leon is coded as a queer character.

Leon (Moses Sumney) and Maxine (Mia Goth) stand together in his video store, in a blurry/grainy shot that deliberately looks like it was shot on 1980s-era videotape, in Ti West’s Maxine Image: A24/YouTube

We only know a few things about Leon: He runs a video store, and knows a lot about movies — enough to casually rattle off a list of movie stars who got their start in horror films. Maxine lives in an apartment right above that store, which probably explains how they got to know each other. They’re such close friends that when she finally gets her big break in a Hollywood movie, directed by revered up-and-comer Elizabeth Bender (played by Elizabeth Debicki), she runs straight to Leon to tell him. But the proximity of his store and her apartment doesn’t fully explain their relationship — as he mutters under his breath at one point when she leaves his store, he believes she only likes him because he’s the only man she knows who “isn’t trying to get into [her] pants.”

A later scene in which Maxine and Leon both fall asleep while watching Bender’s breakout horror movie The Puritan, with Maxine’s head cushioned in Leon’s lap, suggests a comfortable physical intimacy and a high level of trust between them. Does that mean he’s gay? It wouldn’t in 2020s Hollywood, where it’s a little more accepted that men and women are capable of friendship, and that casual physical contact isn’t always sexual.

But in the language of 1980s movies, it’s unequivocal coding. And in the language of Maxxxine, a gender-conscious horror movie where attractive women are mostly cast as prey for monstrous men, it’s even clearer. If he isn’t among the ranks of men who want to exploit, violate, control, or dismember Maxine — if he isn’t a leering lech who sees all women in terms of sex or violence — it can only be because he’s gay. The only man a woman in an ’80s exploitation thriller could be safe around is one who isn’t interested in women at all.

Maxine (Mia Goth) stands next to Leon (Moses Sumney) in his video store, with a vivid red background behind them, in Ti West’s Maxxxine Image: A24/YouTube

If you take that as a given, it suddenly explains a few more things that aren’t overtly explained in the movie. One happens when a barely glimpsed man comes into the video store late at night and Leon turns somber, tells him something like “I don’t do that anymore, this is just a video store,” and kicks him out, closing the shop up behind him. The other comes when the villain, a leather-clad slasher who until that point has only targeted women, hacks up poor Leon in a sequence that’s a little bit Brian De Palma murder (complete with paint-like, too-bright blood and too-obvious gore makeup), and a little bit “Detective Arbogast meets his end in Psycho” (complete with a straight-down-the-face slash that plays like a direct visual reference).

What’s going on in that scene? Why does the killer target Leon in particular? What did the other stranger want, and why did Leon turn him away? And what does that broken arm have to do with it? Consider this narrative. There aren’t enough clear clues to confirm or deny any of this, but it would at least pull together all the narrative pieces Maxxxine leaves scattered around.

The killer, Maxine’s estranged father Ernest, is revealed as a televangelist type driven by self-righteous religious mania. He’s carrying around a classic Madonna-whore complex attitude toward women, and he’s afraid his beloved daughter has turned into the latter, but wants to confirm her as or convert her to the former. He’s been torturing, branding, and murdering Maxine’s strip club co-workers in what he sees as punishment for their sins — a classic archetype of religious hypocrisy, designed to be laughed at for his grotesque idea of Christian righteousness as much as feared.

Leon is gay and largely closeted, as he’d need to be to stay safe during an era when conservative and religious leadership was aggressively drumming up anxiety about gay men, leading to a new wave of hate crimes against them. Because it’s a dangerous time to be out and open, Leon is either using the video store for anonymous hookups, or actually working as a hustler on the side — a likely scenario in Maxxxine’s heightened environment of exploitation, where everyone in Los Angeles is peddling their bodies in one way or another.

A row of VHS tapes in Leon’s video store, splattered with blood, from the trailer for Ti West’s Maxxxine Image: A24/YouTube

Then he has an encounter that goes wrong. Maybe one of his clients assaults him, or maybe (like Maxine earlier in the movie) he’s attacked by a stranger who sees him as an outlet for frustration. He ends up with a broken arm, and a new determination to avoid behavior that might make him a target. When one of his old clients shows up at the store, he says he’s done with that part of his life, whether that means turning tricks or just hooking up.

When Ernest kills Leon, it isn’t a random attack or a warning to Maxine, it’s because Ernest has been staking out the store, knows Leon is gay, and considers him yet another sinner to be punished. It isn’t a coincidence that he kills Leon right after one of Leon’s old hookups shows up — it’s West giving us a quick reminder that the one guy who doesn’t want to get into Maxine’s pants has something else going on with his sex life.

Does Ernest kill Leon out of malignant homophobia, for corrupting Ernest’s supposedly pure daughter with his evil gay presence? Or does he want him out of the way, because Ernest is building up to kidnapping Maxine? Is it a warning for her, given that Ernest is consciously terrorizing her? Or just another exploitative element in the film? That’s much more than West tells us. There’s a lot about Leon that doesn’t get addressed in this movie, in order to keep him backgrounded so West can focus on Maxine’s story.

And given that her story is expressly about how ruthless she is, how willing she is to let go of anything and anyone to get the life she thinks she deserves, having a good friend in her life that she likes and trusts is a narrative speed bump. Maybe she needed to lose Leon, and the thin connection to humanity he represented, in order to reach her final form. Maybe that’s what that final shot of her fake severed head on a bloody bed on the set of her movie really means — she’s achieved everything she wanted, but she couldn’t get there until most of her was sliced away bit by bit, whether by the trauma of X, the death of her friends and father in Maxxxine, or her own conscious choices.

In the same way, maybe West intended more for Leon, but had to largely cut him out of the story to get down to essentials. (Polygon reached out for comment, and will update if we hear back.) Either way, all the weird little clues around him suggest that there’s more to his story than what we got in the final cut.

Maxxxine is in theaters now.