‘MaXXXine’ Review: Mia Goth Slays in a Very Murdery Minx-Up

The actress plays a ferocious porn star stalked by a serial killer in Ti West’s stylish throwback to 1980s sleaze

MaXXXine
A24

Did you know that most decades actually end at some point? It usually happens on or around the end of the decade, but that didn’t happen with the 1980s. They briefly went out of fashion for a few years, but ever since Adam Sandler weaponized Reagan-era nostalgia in the 1998 comedy “The Wedding Singer,” the business of fetishizing, cannibalizing and taxidermizing pop culture from the ’80s equally defined by cocaine and “DuckTales” has been booming. Even though it’s gotten a bit boring.

The problem is that for too long, most of our 1980s nostalgia has been nostalgic for extremely mainstream stuff: John Hughes movies, toy commercials, Ecto Cooler. But believe it or not there was a culture that ran counter to all that junk. Granted, a lot of it was also junk, but it was junk for weirdos and outsiders. And apparently Ti West was one of them. His latest horror throwback thriller, “MaXXXine,” is a violent but affectionate ode to the sleaziest parts of the 1980s.

“MaXXXine” is built on the bones of sex-worker vigilante cult classics like “Angel,” propaganda videos about the Satanic Panic, and just about everything on the notorious Video Nasties list. It’s not the first film to invoke those cultural curios, but coming hot on the heels of West’s acclaimed horror films “X” and “Pearl,” it seems “MaXXXine” (the third film in this horror trilogy) has a good chance of making films like “Vice Squad” popular again. Or more popular. Or popular for the first time. It probably depends on your definition of “popular.”

When we last saw the porn star Maxine Minx, played with a ferocious ferocity by Mia Goth, she was driving over the head of an octogenarian serial killer named Pearl, who was also played by Mia Goth, in “X”. After a detour into the killer’s origins with “Pearl,” we now finally catch up with Maxine, who made it to Hollywood and made a name for herself in adult movies. Now she’s finally got an audition for a real Hollywood production — a sequel to a controversial horror film called “The Puritan” (which I’d lay even odds that Ti West has already secretly filmed) — and she nails it. She gives a superlative performance. But they still make her show her bare breasts. Hollywood is Hollywood no matter what kind of movie you’re making.

Maxine is on the verge of stardom when a VHS tape turns up on her doorstep with footage from the adult movie she was making in “X,” which can connect her to that series of brutal murders and ruin her big break. A mysterious figure who seems to have borrowed Dario Argento’s gloves has hired a sleazy private investigator, John Labat (Kevin Bacon), to stalk her around Hollywood and bring her to an isolated mansion in the hills. Meanwhile, everyone Maxine knows in the adult industry, the studio system, and even in the video store business is getting brutally murdered by someone copycatting the real-life serial killer The Night Stalker.

maxxxine-mia-goth-halsey
Mia Goth and Halsey in “MaXXXine” (A24)

I don’t know if anyone has ever loved anything as much as Ti West seems to love Maxine Minx. She’s part Marilyn Monroe, part Linnea Quigley and part The Punisher. Early in the film she’s attacked in an alleyway and her response will make every guy in the audience yell something that rhymes with “Ow, my schmesticles.” She is the living personification of sexual and theatrical power, but in “MaXXXine” we do finally get to see her vulnerable side.

The horrible events of “X” come back to haunt Maxine in the plot, yes, but also in her head: She’s been so busy promoting her career that she doesn’t seem to have had a moment to sit down and process any of that terror. That is, not until the makeup artists on “The Protestant II” have to put her head in a plaster cast, leaving Maxine with nothing but bad memories and panic. It’s not especially ironic that Maxine relives the events of “X” while undergoing the makeup process Mia Goth must have endured while making “X,” but it is mildly interesting.

And that, unfortunately, is the problem with “MaXXXine” — it’s only mildly interesting. The style is impeccable, the cast is impressive and Mia Goth once again proves that she’s a hand grenade of an actor (and I mean that in the best possible way), but aside from some third act cleverness, it doesn’t have as much to say about 1980s Neo-puritanism as “Pearl” did about about puritanism of the 1910s, or as much as “X” wanted to say about 1970s sexual liberation (before it got sidetracked by tediously demonizing the elderly).

All the individual pieces hit hard. Maxine’s friend Leon (Moses Sumner, “The Idol”) makes a cutting prediction about how the Oscar-winner “Terms of Endearment” won’t be as well-regarded in 30 years as the trashy films it overshadowed. Maxine’s director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) gives intense speeches about how hard it is to break into show business, and how hard it is to stay there. It’s all a metatextual tapestry of 20/20 hindsight about the ‘80s and horror genre self-aggrandizement, and god knows that’s fun, but it still doesn’t have the depth or emotional power that “Pearl” showed that this series was capable of.

What we do get out of “MaXXXine” is another star-making performance by Mia Goth — surely she’s a star now, right? How many star-making performances does it take? — and a trip back to the seedier side of a decade that’s been sanitized within an inch of its life by condescending corporate exploitation. This may not have been the “real” 1980s but it’s a damn sight realer than “Rock of Ages” and “Wonder Woman 1984.” And it’s the only place where Maxine Minx actually exists, so it’s well worth a visit.

An A24 film, “MaXXXine” opens exclusively in theaters on July 5.

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