In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for X, we talk about themes that help us understand the film and the key shots that help elucidate those themes.
- Mia Goth – Maxine “Max” Minx / Pearl
- Jenna Ortega – Lorraine “Raine” Day
- Brittany Snow – Bobby-Lynne Parker
- Scott Mescudi – Jackson Hole
- Martin Henderson – Wayne Gilroy
- Owen Campbell – R.J. Nichols
- Stephen Ure – Howard
- Ti West – Director and writer
How X works as a metafilm
There’s a really cool motif that Ti West sets up in the opening shot of X. I didn’t catch this until my second watch of the film—which isn’t surprising, because it’s a very modest, seemingly weightless moment that quietly foreshadows the film’s aesthetic and thematic focus. So after watching the film for a second time, it really stuck out to me. And the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized it set up several of the key themes and motifs of the film.
So, let’s dig into this opening shot and what it tells us about X. Once you realize how this aesthetic runs throughout the film, it’ll allow you to understand the movie in a new light.
As you can see here, X opens on a house in a rural field. The key thing to notice here is that we are looking at the house from inside the barn.
Now, again, that might not seem like that big of a deal. The barn becomes an important setting later in the film; this shot sets up that the movie takes place on a farm; it’s a cool way to dress up the frame a bit. No big deal, right?
But here’s a key element to notice: Because of those barn doors, the sides of the frame are shrouded in darkness. If we’re just looking at the focus of the shot, which would be the old house and the sprawling fields and the bright blue sky, then about one-third of the shot is missing.
This just happens to be about the size of the Academy standard film aspect ratio: 1.37:1. This was the ratio used by Hollywood for many, many years, including many of the early classics of American cinema. For instance…Citizen Kane.
The awesome thing about this opening shot in X is that this 1.37:1 frame suddenly becomes a 1.90:1 frame—aka the SMPTE/DCI digital cinema basic resolution container aspect ratio—as West slowly moves the camera towards the house. The 1.90:1 aspect ratio is notably much more akin to how the human eye perceives the world.
That’s totally a tiny moment you could miss—and heck, it may not even mean anything. But let’s remember that throughout the film, we transition from between those exact dimensions quite a few times. So what are the implications of this?
A Short History of Aspect Ratios
Well first, let’s consider the history of those two aspect ratios. Older movies would often use the 1.37:1 aspect ratio—especially adult and slasher films from the 1970s (the two genres used for X). Famous movies that used this aspect ratio were King Kong, The Shining, Bambi, Pinocchio, etc.
These days? The 1.37:1 aspect ratio is a pretty uncommon tool for filmmakers and sticks out like a sore thumb when utilized. The 1.90:1 aspect ratio is a much more modern choice and is used by movies like 1917, Dunkirk, and pretty much all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Of course, there are all kinds of aspect ratios, as you can see in the image below. The smaller the frame, the more common it was years ago. These days, movies are quite a bit wider than they used to be, and much more representative of how the human eye perceives the world.
The film’s most important visual motif
What are the implications of this opening shot in X? Well, just as a jumping off point, this opening shot sets up filmmaking as an important motif. Maxine and the gang have traveled to this farmhouse to film an adult movie, so this visual choice at the beginning foreshadows how West will later transition between the filmic shots and real life shots.
Take this moment, for instance, when West goes back and forth between Maxine having lemonade with Pearl and Bobby-Lynne trying to seduce Jackson in the adult film:
That exact transition is happening as that opening shot, right? I love that West sets up this very idea in the opening moments of the film.
So what does any of this mean? Let’s go beyond the visual choice to employ various aspect ratios. What does it mean to the film’s thematic focus and message? How does this visual motif affect the film’s aesthetic?
Let’s think about the two major overarching themes of the film and see how this shot sets them up.
The key themes of X
America at a crossroads
A huge component of X is the generational shift that’s affecting the U.S. in this time period. People are becoming more and more focused on the self and liberation and equality, and leaving behind the communal, nationalistic, doctrinal values of the early nineteenth century.
We see this tension play out several times in X. Howard is disgusted by Jackson’s bohemian lifestyle and believes that Jackson is trying to entice his wife; Pearl scoffs at Bobby-Lynne’s flirtatious persona and happily shoves her into the lake with the alligator; and the televangelist constantly comments on the deteriorating state of America.
Actually, let’s specifically focus on that preacher for a second. We see the preacher give the same tired old speech several times in the movie, including near the end of the movie when Maxine is trying to escape the farmhouse:
“Here we all are together. We’ve reached a crossroads of salvation or damnation. The time is now. For if we do not take control of our fate, the Lord shall do it for us. It’s time to turn our backs on sin and make the commitment once and for all.”
Consider that image. Where do we always see the preacher? On the television—a new piece of technology that signals the progress of times. It represents a moment when early nineteenth century values began to utilize a modern way to preach its messages.
And…what’s the aspect ratio of old televisions? 4:3.
The 4:3 aspect ratio—aka 1.3:1—is actually very close in size to the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Similarly, it’s a very aged format that’s rarely used by filmmakers these days. You can see that aspect ratio in some modern movies, like American Honey or The Lighthouse, but it’s pretty uncommon.
Thus, this aged format becomes a looming presence in the film. While RJ and Wayne are trying to make an adult film for artistic and financial reasons, they’re using an aged aspect ratio that isn’t quite the same as the 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s close, but a little off. One of those formats (1.37:1) is used more for cinematic, artistic formats, while the other aspect ratio (4:3) is a staple of TV where televangelism lives.
This visually captures the thematic tension of the film. RJ wants to create beautiful art out of an adult film, and Lorraine is a church girl who’s intrigued by it all. RJ wants to bring beauty and narrative to the genre, while Wayne wants to make money off the pleasure of sex—a practice that the preacher demonizes and rallies against.
The other component of this visual tension? The preacher on television is actually Maxine’s father, and he’s secretly talking about Maxine for the entire film.
Which brings us to the other big theme of X.
As the previous theme set up, there are aged values of community and tradition that young people simply do not have time for—they’re too busy establishing their own values and finding their own personality to be defined by something so rigidly out-of-touch
Thus, the 4:3 aspect ratio in which the preacher resides becomes a looming presence for Maxine throughout the film as she establishes herself in modern society. Consider what the preacher says about Maxine at the end of the movie:
“I hope that through my own admission others may find the light. I want to show y’all something. Get a shot of this. (Shows picture of Maxine) There she is! My beautiful little daughter Maxine. Lured into a life of sin by the very deviants we warn of here on a daily basis. From our lovin’ home into the hands of devils. We pray, one day, she’ll find her way home to us.”
The preacher is actively damning Maxine’s lifestyle, hopeful that she’ll put all that deviance behind and return home someday. And throughout the movie, the television keeps popping up wherever Maxine goes. She is constantly reminded of the path she chose and forced to defend her choices.
Yet, time and time again, she pushes on. She is never deterred by what people will think about her—in fact, she wants more and more people to notice her, to see what she’s doing. She’s proud of her lifestyle, of her personality, of her ability to drift outside the groupthink. She has that X factor, as Wayne puts it—and she’s not afraid to use it to her advantage.
And where does that X factor shine? In front of the camera—that is where she can reach the most people and have the biggest impact. Her ability to stay true to herself, to never deny what makes her special is the ultimate display of self-discovery. The times are changing, and she’s not going to be held back.
This speaks to Maxine’s relationship with Pearl, who serves as a symbolic representation of someone who’s held back by the times and never truly discovers themselves. Pearl was beautiful, but age took that away from her; she wanted to be a dancer, but could never turn it into a career; she used to be as attractive as Maxine and Bobby-Lynne, but now can’t even have sex with her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine is beautiful, is pursuing her career, has a thriving sex life.
Which brings us to an important component of the aspect ratio motif in the film: perspective. The 1.90:1 aspect ratio that the movie exists within is closely associated with how the human eye perceives the world. Thus, when we see people existing in Ti West’s chosen format, we’re seeing “reality.” Not the adult film being photographed by RJ and Wayne, and not the television where the preacher is raging against modern values—those are mere projections. Those are stories people are trying to force into the world. Those are narratives each competing for their respective idealizations of America.
And you could either fall into one of those camps—or you could transcend all the indoctrination and choose your own path. Like Maxine does.
Pearl, however, is unable to find the freedom that Maxine did. Which is why she’s so attracted to Maxine, why she fantasizes about living Maxine’s life. We see that play out when Pearl touches Maxine, desperate to forge a connection—and just then, West cuts to a shot of Jackson touching Bobby-Lynne in the adult film.
Pearl so desperately wants to become part of this idealized image created by RJ and Wayne, this format where Bobby-Lynne can benefit from her sexuality, this vessel in which Maxine capitalizes on her X factor. This is film vs. reality; manufactured narrative vs. true narrative; what you wanted to happen vs. what actually happened. And many people are ruined by this tension that affects us all—affects America as a whole.
Now let’s go all the way back to that opening shot. That tiny zoom-in from the barn onto the farmhouse represents all of that—every theme and message we’ve discussed. Thus, the opening shot becomes a meta moment that represents Ti West’s filmic intentions with the motif. Yes, the opening shot sets up the aspect ratio motif—but it also highlights how we are, indeed, watching a movie with a carefully chosen aspect ratio. And there’s a movie within this movie that serves as commentary on all the people within the movie…whoa.
This makes me think about the very end of the movie. One of the cops investigating the crime scene brings out a camera that contains the film for The Farmer’s Daughters. And after asking the sheriff what he thinks is on the film, the sheriff responds, “I’d say one godd*mned f*cked up horror picture.”
Yes, the sheriff is describing the adult film…but he’s also describing the exact film we just watched. The fight for control of future generations? The pressure to think and act a certain way? This desire to keep everything stuck in the past? To never truly discover yourself? That’s the ongoing story of the United States—that’s the messed up horror picture.
Yet we hardly recognize that West is making us a part of that messed up story right at the beginning of the film. He carefully guides us in and forces us to choose a path. Maxine sure does, as she notes later in the film: “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.”
So how about you?