Get Your Groove Back

Male insecurity and cosplay at work in “MaXXXine,” “The Bikeriders,” and “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.”

Ti West’s “MaXXXine” is a disappointment that’s particular to our current moment in pop culture. It thinks it’s giving you what you think you want, but you’re left feeling empty by the weird mixture of admirable technical craft and pointlessness. After “X,” “Pearl,” and “MaXXXine,” I’m tired of watching a talented and idiosyncratic director bland out his style in order to consciously court mainstream audiences.

All three films are vastly superior to what we typically accept from modern American horror movies, but West is hemming himself in. And yet West’s trilogy of horror pastiches aren’t merely karaoke jobs. If they were, they’d be easier to write off. All three of them have extraordinary sequences, and “X,” for its compact premise, entirely holds together.

“MaXXXine” is the most ambitious of the lot. The film is a Hollywood Babylon thriller set against the rape and murder spree of the Night Stalker, who was eventually revealed to be Richard Ramirez. West rhymes the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and the Night Stalker with the re-ascension of Christian fundamentalism, and his aesthetic template is based on lurid 1980s-era slashers like Lucio Fulci’s “The New York Ripper.” For all those ingredients, “MaXXXine” still feels thin, the thinnest of West’s trilogy.

West is an eerily good mimic. “MaXXXine” looks and sounds even more like a “video nasty” than “X” did a western horror picture like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The first, and quite promising hour of the movie, hums with menace in every direction. As in the films it’s mimicking, everyone appears as if they might be a horny pervert. The neon of Hollywood Boulevard and the grainy soft-focus cinematography emit a fetishistic heat, though nothing can match the crackle of the leather gloves worn by a killer, maybe the Night Stalker, maybe not, who begins targeting women who work in adult films. West gets these details just right. “MaXXXine” has a sense of style that few modern horror films can rival.

One of those women is Maxine (Mia Goth), the lone survivor of the bloodbath that ended “X.” Goth also played the primary antagonist in that film, a sexually frustrated old woman named Pearl, who was revealed in “Pearl,” set in 1912, to have once been an aspiring film actress like Maxine. Take all three movies together and you’ve got an essay, across three or four different flavors of horror movie, on how women are lusted after, envied, and resented, by men as well as other women.

“Pearl” deepened “X,” making its monster nearly pitiable, but “MaXXXine” doesn’t do this series a similar favor. Women in horror movies, and in life, are routinely objectified and resented. Undeniable and obvious and West doesn’t go any farther than that. These films have no subtext, which is remarkable given the horror film’s penchant for at least accidentally having subtext. “MaXXXine” doesn’t benefit from the preachiness either: It looks nasty, all dressed up and ready to party, but it isn’t as naughty as it appears to be.

Maxine, whom we already know from “X” can take care of herself, to put it lightly, is so formidable that she’s forgettable. She appears to feel no fear, little sense of loss and no sense of conflict over her choices, which always boil down to “I want to be in movies.” This is the first of these movies without Pearl, and it reveals through her absence that Pearl, and her sense of disappointment and longing, is sorely needed to prop up West’s genre gamesmanship. Pearl is a young and talented actress’s projection of what it might feel like to grow old, which is less about Goth’s empathy than perhaps her own fear. Maxine is a girl boss in retro clothing, and in “MaXXXine” she grows tiresome.

Trying to get into Hollywood movies, and realizing that she’s being targeted by a killer, Maxine engages in a series of dialogues with a variety of guest stars who illustrate West’s growing cachet in the industry. Kevin Bacon, almost always superb, overdoes it as a private eye who is, in a nice touch, employed by the killer. Bobby Cannavale, almost always superb, overdoes it as a cop with his own dreams of being a star. Giancarlo Esposito, almost always superb, is, okay, still superb as a stereotypical agent on the seedier rungs of the industry. As a film director who’s aware of the compromises necessary in a brutal industry, especially as a woman, Elizabeth Debicki walks away with the movie. In only a few scenes, Debicki builds a character rather than a caricature.

With its wandering backlot idylls and riffs on the meaning of genres and intersections of real and imagined killers, “MaXXXine” brings to mind a slasher version of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” At its best, as in the scenes with Debicki and Esposito, or in an authentically unnerving faux home video of the killer seizing female victims, “MaXXXine” can lay claim to this heritage without embarrassment. At its worst, “MaXXXine” suggests something goofier, like, say, “Scream 3,” in which the gang went Hollywood. West keeps hiding behind jokes, and you may want to scream at the screen for him to play it straight.

For all of his brio, West whiffs the most important scene in “MaXXXine:” the reveal of the killer’s identity. This should be the ultimate confrontation with the film’s heart of darkness, a scene that ties together its various threads and maybe even connects “Maxxxine” decisively with “X” and “Pearl.” And yet this reveal is tossed off as just another joke and followed with a shoot-out that a hack could’ve cobbled together. It’s the worst 15 minutes of West’s career.

Seek out West’s “The House of the Devil.” This 2009 film also concerns a woman in peril amidst panic over satanic cults, and it’s a quiet and very scary slow burn that is driven by financial desperation, or, in other words, has a point beyond gratifying cinema fever. One murder — of a character played by a future A-list director — is so jolting I haven’t forgotten it 15 years later. In that film, West maintains an aura of authentic melancholy and dread. West’s early films move to their own beat. Let’s hope that he rediscovers that groove.

 

Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders” is also a pastiche, of outlaw biker movies like the Marlon Brando vehicle “The Wild One,” which is quoted, but that contrivance is intentional. The bikers of this film are poignantly role-playing, particularly the leader of the pack, Johnny, who is played by Tom Hardy with one of the most resonant of his unplaceable accents. Hardy is playing an anonymous working-class man playing at Brando, and it’s one of the greatest performances of his career — a deliberately show-off-y piece of work that’s about the fear that drives said showing off. This fear informs the pastiche of the film with an actual point. It’s a nostalgic movie about the limits of nostalgia.

For a little while, there’s another fear: that Nichols is going to lean too hard on Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” with its blasts of rock-n-roll and violence and freeze frames and ironic use of faux interviews. Nichols gradually pumps the breaks on that homage, and “The Bikeriders” opens up into an intuitive mood bath. The film is framed by interviews with Kathy (Jody Comer), who married Benny (Austin Butler), one of Johnny’s most trusted soldiers. The film is driven by Benny’s divide between Kathy and Johnny. A hack might’ve made it easier by coding one of the characters as less sympathetic than the other, but Nichols allows you to feel the conflict. Benny loves both of them. That’s it in terms of plot, and some audiences may be put off by Nichols’ shaggy tempo.

On the other hand, I found the film to be beautiful and stirring, a period picture that allows you to drink in its haunted Americana. Butler is clearly the supernova actor-hunk that Hollywood wants him to be; he’s cool and moving without cheapening Benny’s torment with macho posturing. The film’s centerpiece is a long sequence where Johnny asks Benny to be his heir to his expanding club, which is played by both actors openly as a love scene. For all our progressive talk, we’re still uncomfortable as a culture with male vulnerability, and Nichols, with only a handful of memorable male gothics under his belt, has established himself as one of its supreme modern poets.

 

 

One more work of pastiche, easily the weakest of the summer so far: “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.” Eddie Murphy is back as Axel Foley, the Detroit detective who for some reason often winds up going vigilante while solving cases in Beverly Hills. I don’t have it in me to summarize the particulars, so let’s just say that it’s the same dung, different day. There are pitiful Easter eggs for the fans, limp action, limper jokes, and Murphy, who looks great but couldn’t be more bored with what he’s having to walk through here. Murphy’s been sleeping through a lot of movies lately, including the even worse “Coming 2 America” and the ill-advised Jonah Hill movie, “You People.” I would love to see him engaged in something again, but these rehash jobs are unlikely to do the trick.

Fun fact: Kevin Bacon also pops up in “Axel F” and he gives a more controlled and menacing performance than he does in the otherwise far superior “Maxxxine.” His performance here would make more sense in that movie. Such are the peculiarities of Hollywood’s nostalgia machine. Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

“Maxxxine” and “The Bikeriders” are now in theaters. “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” is streaming on Netflix.

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