Maxxxine isn’t just paying homage to exploitation thrillers… it is one

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ―Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

Ti West’s Maxxxine, the third movie in the horror trilogy West started with 2022’s X and Pearl, features an early scene where a man’s naked scrotum is graphically popped under a stiletto heel, then crushed underfoot. It’s a close-up shot, handled with presumably practical effects and squirm-inducing anatomical specificity. There is, obviously, a lot of screaming. It’s the kind of shot designed to make audiences squirm, flinch, cross their legs protectively — and possibly also laugh, because it’s so grotesquely over the top. And it’s the kind of moment that makes thoughtful genre fans wonder exactly where the line is between exploitation-film homage and just plain exploitation.

Maxxxine is a reference-packed movie, like X and Pearl before it. All three movies pay homage to previous eras of cinema: X, set in 1979, is a visual and narrative throwback to ’70s slashers, particularly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Pearl, set in 1918, is patterned after classic ’50s musicals and Disney movies. And Maxxxine, set in 1985, takes a lot of its visual and narrative cues from ’80s horror-thrillers — particularly Brian De Palma’s Body Double, though sex-soaked revenge dramas like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 get their nods, too.

An understandably worried-looking Kevin Bacon, hair and face streaked with blood, stares open-mouthed at something offscreen in Ti West’s Maxxxine Photo: Justin Lubin/A24

But where X is more interested in characters and the philosophies of fame, sex, and pornography than movies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Pearl isn’t a musical or family-friendly movie, there’s no significant distance between Maxxxine and the kind of sleazy, slobbery, violence-savoring films it’s referencing. (Though there’s a world of difference between it and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which West repeatedly quotes in his shots and sets throughout the whole trilogy.) The film doesn’t come across as ironic, satirical, or like a thoughtful analysis or commentary. It’s the first of the three that could actually be considered a new entry in the genre it’s referencing.

That shift isn’t a positive step. Maxxxine is sharper, slicker, faster-paced, and more direct than the other two films in the series, and it’s certainly entertaining, for those who can stomach its purposefully challenging, envelope-pushing gore. But this time around, it feels like West has, as Kurt Vonnegut would put it, become what he was formerly just pretending to be. That isn’t just a matter of taxonomy, irrelevant to everyone but nitpickers and librarians trying to figure out which shelf Maxxxine goes on. It winds up affecting the story in some frustrating ways.

This chapter of the story finds X survivor Maxine Minx (Mia Goth, the trilogy’s anchor) living in Hollywood, working in adult films and at a strip club while auditioning for studio movies and trying to break into the mainstream. She gets that break from director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki, looking more like a Robert Palmer Girl than ever), an iconoclastic director whose horror movie The Puritan has earned her a breakout shot at a bigger-budgeted Puritan II. Maxine gets cast as the lead, but her big moment is threatened by a series of distractions, some of which could end her life as well as her career.

Maxine (Mia Goth) struts across a Hollywood parking lot outside a movie soundstage, with a row of other auditioners lined up in chairs behind her, in Maxxxine Photo: Dons Lens/A24

There’s a local serial killer at work, dubbed the Night Stalker, who’s targeting young, attractive women like Maxine. Avuncular, slimy detective John Labat (Kevin Bacon, devouring all scenery within reach, and making it look delicious) is trying to blackmail her on behalf of a hidden client, threatening to out her to Texas law enforcement as the one person who knows what happened during the events of X. As cold and self-possessed as Maxine seems, she has PTSD in the wake of those events, and she’s having shattering flashbacks. And a couple of L.A. cops (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) are also chasing her, suspecting she knows something about how two of her co-workers ended up tortured, branded with pentacles, murdered, and dumped in a local pond.

The Night Stalker plot thread was inspired by a real-life notorious rapist and murderer, and the torture-victims-dumped-in-public detail similarly echoes one of Los Angeles’ most horrifying and memorable crimes, the Black Dahlia murder. But the visual and narrative treatment of all of these threads is pure exploitation movie. The story certainly features a fair bit of violence enacted on men, from that rape-revenge-movie moment with the punctured scrotum to a couple of memorably ghastly deaths. But Maxxxine spends much more time on women being threatened, victimized, and commoditized, stalked and leered over and judged by male predators, tied up and tortured and dropped naked in public.

It’s all familiar enough material that it runs together, no matter how abruptly and aggressively West cuts between his close-ups of agonized female corpses. What makes it a story is Maxine’s response to living in this kind of oversexed, raw environment — and Maxxxine frequently lets her down. West writes her as a ruthless, ferocious survivor willing to do anything for fame, then repeatedly takes her fate out of her hands and gives it to other people instead. He gives her a touch of vulnerability with those flashbacks to her past traumas, but he casually drops that part of the narrative once it’s been useful for injecting a few sudden shocks into the film.

Maxine (Mia Goth) stands outside a store with a bright neon-yellow “adult movies” sign and police “crime scene do not cross” tape strung up in an X across the door in Ti West’s Maxxxine Photo: Justin Lubin/A24

Above all, Maxxxine never really fills in the blanks that would make Maxine more than a focal point for different kinds of lurid violence. She doesn’t escape her problems via particularly clever or surprising choices. She confronts the film’s ultimate predator, but in a way that only brings out more information about him, not about her. The film’s climax sidelines her. And the buildup to that climax is full of sequences meant to feel cool, edgy, horrifying, or thrilling on their own, but without a sense that they’re part of an evolution or progression. Stuff happens to and around Maxine — horrifying, gross, exploitative things — but the screenplay seems more interested in those in those things than it is in her.

X and Pearl both have their flaws, but they also both let Goth’s characters (Maxine in the first case, earlier obsessive fame-seeker Pearl in the second) speak at length about who they are and what they want. In both cases, those sequences are queasy, fascinating, and memorable. And they’re part of what sells this trilogy, besides the memorable splashes of graphic violence and the weird, dark humor that permeates all three movies. Maxxxine literally gags Goth at a crucial moment so West can focus more on bloody mayhem than on anything she has to say for herself.

And that leaves Maxxxine feeling unbalanced compared to the other two films, like it isn’t really about the central character so much as it is about how much sordid grotesquerie West can pile up on the screen. It’s more tuned into fulfilling its audience’s presumed hunger for sex, blood, and violation than fulfilling any particular plot arc for Maxine herself. That kind of focus on transgression and titillation defined the films West is channeling this time out. But until now, this series has just felt like West is nodding to his influences, while still fulfilling his own discrete goals. With Maxxxine, it’s more like he’s trying to supplant them, without putting anything new on the table except better effects and a bigger budget.

Maxxxine opens in theaters on July 5.