‘MaXXXine’ Is Here To Scare The Prudes

There’s a moment in MaXXXine — Ti West’s coated-in-pulp trilogy ender starring muse Mia Goth – that’s so salacious, it managed to perfectly capture its creator’s frustration with the tight-laced limitations of today’s Hollywood while also erecting a big middle finger to the neutered killjoys that make up an ever-growing majority of today’s audiences. It happens mid-way through the film, as Goth’s titular heroine slogs through the seedy streets of downtown L.A., hopping from one sexually explicit side gig to the next. She’s bounced from an audition that ended with her topless to the set of a skin flick to a strip club and finally a peep show, wielding her body and the reactions it elicits as a tool to propel her closer to stardom. She’s on her way home now, both exhausted by and at ease with the violent chaos that surrounds her – the hookers picking up johns, the street drugs being passed out like candy, the always-present threat of a serial killer lurking in the shadows – when a man with a switchblade stalks her to a trash-filled alleyway. How this scumbag imagined this would end, we’ll never know, because Goth’s ruthlessly determined final girl upends her trope, flashing a gun from her purse and skirting any narrative trauma writers should like to inflict on her to “earn” her triumphant final act.

MaXXXine has had enough of being a victim, thank you, and she proves it by torturing her would-be assailant in the most degrading way possible.

Now, the more memorable part of this scene comes towards the end, when MaXXXine strips her perp bare, forces him to lay face down on the grimy street, and crushes his balls to a pulp with her stilettoed heel. It’s shocking, it’s gruesome, it’s incredibly satisfying and bleakly funny. But it’s not the moment that caused audiences to squirm in their seats. That came earlier, when MaXXXine forced her attacker to his knees, prompted him to open wide, and shoved the barrel of her gun in his mouth, demanding he fellate her weapon (for a change).

How much sex (if any) should be on TV and in movies has been a taboo topic of conversation lately. It’s not just critics and filmmakers arguing over semantics either. A recent study from Talker Research found that 43% of entertainment fans dub sex scenes unnecessary to a story. According to The Economist, nearly 50% of last year’s top-grossing films featured no nudity or sex. It’s a trend that mirrors younger generations’ attitudes towards intimacy on screen with Gen Z ranking as one of the largest groups protesting against sex on screen. MaXXXine’s sexually-tinged form of punishment for a man with nefarious intentions doesn’t necessarily rate as a sex scene, but its imagery is just suggestive enough to push the boundaries of what today’s moviegoers seem to be comfortable with, especially when paired with all of the other allusions to sex that West weaves in his film.

Whittled down to its simplest form, MaXXXine is about all of the ways sex both sells and gatekeeps, especially in relation to women. Hollywood was built on the backs of ingenues looking to escape the confines of unfortunate childhoods, seeking salvation in stardom, and ill-equipped to accomplish either without commoditizing themselves. West is clear on that, treating sex as a background prop to reach for when a ring of keys between the knuckles won’t do. He pummels your face with it, showing how the industry he’s apart of both exploits and penalizes those willing to bare their bodies to get ahead. MaXXXine’s adult film star past is frowned upon by casting agents who make a point of getting her tits on tape. She’s seen as a risky hire for a B-grade horror movie steeped in the occult because she’s had sex on camera, and irony not lost on the tough-as-nails director (Elizabeth Debicki) who hires her, in part, for the controversy she’ll stir.

And West sets his flashes of skin to a societal backdrop swarmed by the Satanic Panic of the 70s and 80s, a time of Puritanical pearl clutching birthed from the fire and brimstone prosperity gospel that MaXXXine herself has surprising ties to. West has referenced the hypocrisy, explaining in interviews that MaXXXine takes place a year after the MPAA introduced its revised rating system to appease conservative parents. But he uses his camera to investigate the fucked up attitudes towards sex that we seem to have inherited from this decade and this generation too, splicing moments of eroticism with nauseating gore and disturbing religious fervor and asking us which makes us the most uncomfortable.

Perhaps the difference in how West uses sex to paint a portrait of how 80s era Hollywood used sex lies not in the finished product, but in the process. After all, we live in the time of intimacy coordinators and post-#MeToo film sets where actors are given more agency and more care into how sex and nudity are portrayed on screen. But given those advances, it seems strange that just a handful of films and directors (West included) are keen to harness any kind of eroticism in their stories.

With MaXXXine, sex isn’t some accessory to West’s tale, it’s the action driver – what his aspiring starlet tries to distance herself from, what she wields unapologetically, and what she’s needlessly condemned for. It’s explicit, brazen, seedy, unrefined, and, at times, truly cringe to gaze upon.

For some, that will be the slasher flick’s scariest part.