Film Review: “MaXXXine” – The Fame Monster

By Nicole Veneto

It really bums me out to tell you that MaXXXine, the much awaited final film in the “X” trilogy, is an underwhelming ending to an otherwise interesting nu-slasher series.

Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) faces down her past on the road to Hollywood stardom in MaXXXine. Photo: A24

One of slasher cinema’s greatest offerings can be found in the competing figures of the Final Girl and her arch-nemesis, the weapon-wielding psychopath whom she must vanquish before the credits roll (or at least until the sequel rolls around). These contraries form the backbone of the genre, one which writer-director Ti West plays with in 2022’s back-to-back X and Pearl. The master thesis of these films doubled the Final Girl figure with the slasher villain, dramatized by the battle between Mia Goth’s fame-hungry Maxine Minx and Pearl, her fame-thwarted elderly doppelgänger. The implicitly gendered connection between horror protagonist and antagonist has been a glaring subtext ever since Psycho supplied the genre’s contemporary rubric. Carol J. Clover, in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, explicated the role of the Final Girl: “She is what the killer once was; he is what she could become should she fail in her battle for sexual selfhood.” West’s twist to Clover’s analysis was changing the killer from male to female, thus positing a literal mirror image of monstrous femininity to the Final Girl. This is what I found compelling about these movies, undercutting criticisms that they are mere exercises in style over substance.

So it really bums me out to tell you that MaXXXine, the much awaited final film in the X trilogy, is an underwhelming ending to an otherwise interesting nu-slasher series. Perhaps this is in keeping with the film’s ’80s pastiche; the third entry peters out under the thematic weight of its previous installments. Entertaining enough — as far as violent set pieces and cocaine-fueled sleaze can take you — West’s grand finale leaves unfulfilled potential on the table.

The plot jumps from 1979 Texas and into 1985 Tinseltown. X’s Final Girl Maxine Minx (a denim-clad and bleach-blonde Goth, allegedly a bit of a monster herself behind the scenes), is aging out of her porn career at the ripe old age of 33. Her agent (Giancarlo Esposito in a ridiculous wig) has helped land her some gigs outside of adult entertainment, but she has to go back to stripping to pay the bills. Luckily for her, she’s just gotten a starring role in Elizabeth Bender’s (the statue-esque Elizabeth Debecki) The Puritan II, a Hollywood sequel to a controversial video nasty the demanding Bender insists is a “B-movie with A-ideas.” Complicating matters is private detective John Labat (Kevin Bacon sporting a seersucker suit and gold teeth), who has been hired by a mysterious black-gloved figure from Maxine’s past to track her down. Armed with the knowledge of her part in the Texas Porn Star Massacre, Labat’s dogged pursuit (at one point chasing Maxine through the Universal backlot and into the Bates mansion) threatens her best shot at legitimate stardom. This is more of a damper on her future than the religious fundamentalists who are constantly protesting around the “Satanic” movie set. Meanwhile, a pair of LA detectives (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale) seek Maxine’s assistance to solve a string of Night Stalker copycat murders after a pair of strip club co-workers (pop star Halsey and Chloe Farnworth) wind up dead and branded in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The heart of the film’s problem is this: in order for the trilogy to come full circle, Maxine’s fame needed to hinge on becoming a full blown horror movie monster herself. As I said way back in my Pearl review, Maxine and her villainous double possess the same X-factor — and violent tendencies — by virtue of being played by the same actress. At its outset, MaXXXine suggests that this is the route it’ll take. It opens with the well known Bette Davis quote: “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.” Instead, MaXXXine doubles down on the metaphor of the Final Girl as a fearless survivor. Maxine is haunted by her religious fundamentalist past (the “mysterious” figure trying to kill her is all too obvious) and the porno-turned-horror movie she escaped alive from six years prior. Considering that so much of contemporary “elevated” horror is dedicated to mining female trauma, it’s the least inspired direction West could have taken with this material. From the Scream sequels to the Halloween reboots, the perpetual retraumatization of the Final Girl has been done ad nauseam. So why not allow Maxine to become a fame monster of her own making? The film plays with the starlet’s homicidal inclinations, but it ends up favoring Maxine as a self-avenging angel rather than a starry-eyed monstrous woman just like Pearl.

John Labat (Kevin Bacon) in Maxxine. Photo: A24

My disappointment in Maxine’s character arc notwithstanding, there’s still enough for me to admire about MaXXXine that I can’t dismiss the movie outright. West’s still got a really nasty eye for violence, with two scenes in particular literally dedicated to crushing Maxine’s foes to bloody pulps. Returning cinematographer Eliot Rockett lends the film a look that’s equal parts glitter and grime, trading in X’s sunbleached ’70s palette and Pearl’s Sirkian Technicolor for neon-drenched excess in the vein of ’80s De Palma. (I’m sure harsher critics that I am will knock the movie as being nothing more than a Body Double rip-off.) And, in a year that’s already given us one great villain (Ed Harris in Love Lies Bleeding), Friday the 13th-alum Kevin Bacon manages to steal Goth’s spotlight whenever he’s onscreen with his silly Foghorn Leghorn accent and soaking pit stains.

The ultimate irony is that Pearl has displaced Maxine as the real horror icon to emerge from the X trilogy. Maxine may be the one at the end happily chopping her coke up with a brand new SAG card, but Pearl’s X-factor has proven more resonant among female horror fans like myself (I went as her this past Halloween, and yes, I did the wispy Mia Goth voice throughout the night). In the eternal struggle between the Final Girl and the (feminized) slasher villain, it would seem that, at least in this case, the latter has prevailed in the pop cultural consciousness. Hardly surprising given that the monstrous feminine, as theorized by Clover’s peer, Barbara Creed, appeals to women’s desire to revolt against patriarchal expectations that demand our polite obedience. MaXXXine misses the mark because it loses sight of what made the first two films so appealing in the first place. This effort is less than the sum of its parts — much like your standard ’80s horror sequel. Yes, the kills are diverting, but the intellectual rigor that defined its predecessors is gone.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and her podcast on Twitter @MarvelousDeath.

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