Film review: “MaXXXine” has the hallmarks of an 80s horror film, but it lacks substance

Say hello to Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), the (anti)heroine in Ti West's MaXXXine, the third installment in his hastily-wrapped X trilogy. When we last saw Maxine, she was escaping a porn star massacre in Texas, leaving a trail of bloody carnage in her wake. Now, six years have passed, in 1985 Los Angeles, and Maxine, a hardworking porn starlet and peep show performer, is determined to leave her trashy, traumatic origins behind and become a Star with a capital S on the silver screen, no matter what the cost.

Maxine lets nothing stop her from becoming a star when she lands her first mainstream film role in a horror sequel called The Puritan II. No friends getting slaughtered, no Night Stalker, no pesky LAPD detectives, and no pesky private investigator (Kevin Bacon) on her tail. Maxine will not accept a life she doesn't deserve, and you must remember that.

Like the previous two films in the trilogy, MaXXXine offers writer-director-editor West a chance to play with genres. Whereas X was a grimy '70s slasher and the prequel Pearl was a Technicolor musical with axe murder, MaXXXine wears the shell of a sexy, sleazy '80s erotic thriller. But that turns out to be purely aesthetic: There's no eroticism or thrills – it's just a cute costume.

All the aural and visual hallmarks are there: a great soundtrack, careful production and costumes that recreate '80s Hollywood, plenty of stylistic nods to giallo films and Brian De Palma's filmography. But West doesn't use these references intentionally, and in fact there are far too many of them. The film is too clever by half, but it's not even that clever – and therein lies the problem.

West hits us over the head with gestures from film history – a Buster Keaton impersonator threatens Maxine in an alley, she stubs a cigarette on silent film star Theda Bara's star on the Walk of Fame, Bacon in a “Chinatown” outfit chases her onto the set of the house from “Psycho” – but none of these references make any sense. They are just increasingly annoying elbow jabs to the ribs. When Maxine stomps on Buster's genitals, it becomes clear that this is all just a cheap joke, a cinematic pun designed for film geeks but delivered without a hint of suspense or tension.

And what about the crime story? Does it make sense? No. The Night Stalker murders play out in the background, without context, a story you read on the evening news. Maxine's friends are indeed found dead, decorated with satanic symbols, but like those of the friends she left behind in Texas, their deaths are seemingly mere speed bumps on her road to fame. It's not entirely clear why she treats the LAPD detectives (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale) with hostility, except that it makes her late for her first day on the set of The Puritan II, where director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) delivers wordy but ultimately meaningless monologues to Maxine about the philosophy of art and industry.

Like those rambling speeches, West peppers “MaXXXine” with familiar quotes, images and platitudes that suggest “Hollywood commentary,” but there's no real commentary. He manages to say nothing at all, and is unwilling to indict his leading lady, thereby undermining her power. The ruthlessly ambitious Maxine is far more interesting if we understand her as the villain in this story, not the heroine. West hints at her true nature with an opening quote from Bette Davis: “In this business, you're not a star until you're known as a monster,” but he constantly evades, taking away any real bite from her.

Only Goth really understands Maxine, as she understood Pearl, and she plays the porn star with the heart of coal like the fierce, fierce fighter she is. When Maxine is evil, Goth is very good, and unfortunately West never lets her off the leash. Goth holds “MaXXXine” together through the sheer force of her charisma, the bumpy plot, her under-appreciated character, and the dragging, perfunctory murders that go like clockwork.

This is disappointing because X was a fascinating work about the search for one's desire and self-actualization through mediated images. It's clear that West put a lot of thought into making a film in a specific genre that addressed the power of self-actualization through filmmaking. It was clever and sophisticated, and that thesis held so much promise, which was further explored on a character level in Pearl, and which could have been expanded upon in MaXXXine through the themes of voyeuristic surveillance in the erotic thriller. But it all just becomes hopelessly muddled.

Ultimately, “MaXXXine” is very similar to the set she is chased through on the Warner Bros. backlot. A beautiful facade, behind whose walls everything is empty, all surface, meaningless symbols and not a shred of substance to be found.