I went to watch A24’s X during my finals because Jenna Ortega has become one of my favorite scream queens. I did not expect this horror film to leave questions of completeness, youth, and existential dread swirling in my head non-stop. By bringing the terror of aging to the forefront, A24’s X shows how we are separated from the knowledge, communal care, and journey of growing old.
Ever since I could remember, I waited in anticipation of being older. Not in the name of being able to drive or drink, but because I thought wrinkles held secrets and truths. I did not see old age as dwindling towards death. I saw and still see it as life. When I did start growing older, I realized that life is trouble as well as joy. That is why I still try to listen and learn from every word that comes out of my Buelita’s mouth – as someone has recently told me, our elders are libraries. Gray hair shining through, earned grooves marking time, spots the shape of lakes dotting your hand like confetti. Share your life with me so that we may link in this chain we keep growing.
But what happens when age and its bodily characteristics are seen through eyes of disgust and fear? Viewing A24’s X caused a whirlwind in my mind over the dynamics of generational conflict. Spoilers coming! The movie pays homage to a series of slasher films with its callback to 70s cinematography, but still feels exciting and fresh thanks to its distinct style and voice. As with any good slasher movie, there is the main villain, here the elderly farmer’s wife named Pearl, and the final girl, a porn star named Maxine. Both characters are played by the same actress, Mia Goth, showing the film’s revolving themes of resentment, desire, and regret through a doubling of young and old. Maxine and her friends/team go to a distant farm in Texas to secretly shoot a porno, but during the night, Pearl goes on a killing rampage due to a mix of contempt for the actions of the young people and her own anger with her age and unmet sexual desires.
In between the gruesome murders, Pearl sneaks into Maxine’s bedroom where we see Maxine sleeping naked. Pearl slips in beside Maxine, caressing the soft skin of the girl she used to be before the wrinkles took hold and her hair turned into white tufts. Smooth skin and lithe bodies are coveted elements of youth, and there is a booming beauty industry to prove it. Personally, I find having a skin-care routine to be a comforting moment of relaxation before and after sleep, but the message of youth’s superiority has bled through my motivations when I apply the retinol, the sunscreen, the gels, the serums. The “ageless” and “anti-aging” labels plastered on products scream that aging is undesirable.
In A24’s X, every time Pearl kills someone it’s as if we’re seeing age and time bring our young characters to their deaths. It is the breaking of youthful skin through alligator bites or pitchfork jabs. It is Pearl releasing her anger, basking in her killings as if she is taking back time.
But when Maxine finally kills Pearl, she is disconnecting from backward beliefs and death. There is no genuine exchange and understanding, just hatred, disgust, and judgment. Personally, I have made the mistake of foreclosing dialogue by homogenizing everyone who’s older than me – believing they’re all extremely conservative and perpetrators of the structures that harm marginalized communities. I did this and sometimes still do it because of my life experiences with restrictions and prejudice, like Maxine. At the end of the film, we learn she was the daughter of a priest who espoused extreme rhetoric against sexual exploration. She has reason to distrust her elders, as many of us do.
Yet wanting and needing change, grappling with violence and anxieties are not generationally specific. Scholars, activists, and community members have been dealing with these issues since before any of us were born. The ongoing nature of the struggle means there is reason to scaffold our knowings and experiences across generations – at least, within the communities we trust and purposefully construct.
So many current events scare me more than any horror movie could, and in those moments, I remember the danger of forgetting empathy. If we listen and learn from each other, knowing it will not be easy or straightforward, I hope our connections grow stronger and wider. And then we can avoid the trauma of killing our past or present selves and instead make progress with ourselves and this society we live in – at any age.
A24’s X is out now on Blueray and streaming services.