[8 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The world’s oldest profession meets the planet’s first felony in the excellent Australian “erotic” thriller X. A wonderfully noir-ish effort from co-writer/director Jon Hewitt (and available via IFC On Demand and limited theatrical release on 8 April), this is a movie that exposes the sleazy underbelly of Sydney as only a native can. There is a cancer Downunder, and it breeds in strip clubs, hour rate motels, dirty street corners, and oddly enough, in the high rise exclusivity of depraved upper class society. This is a world awash in purposeful white slavery, where young girls see no other alternative than to sell their bodies for cash. Within this desperate dynamic sits Holly (Viva Bianca), an sex for rent performer who balances her trade between the occasional rich john and the bored housewives of the suburbs. She’s hoping to escape, but she will soon learn just how many impediments there are to “getting out.”
One of them is obsessive ‘boyfriend’ Ligurian (Peter Docker), a man of many appetites but one singular resolve - Holly will be part of his life, either here in Australia or in the Paris of her dreams. He will not be separated from her. Even though he’s abusive and controlling, he does seem to care. Then there’s Shay (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), a random waif Holly picks up to participate in a double act for a client. Lost and all alone, some manner of maternal instinct kicks in when she stumbles across the struggling teen. In the end, both witness something they shouldn’t, resulting in an overnight chase through the slimy city streets, and a last ditch effort to find some kind of help. Holly turns to the only source of strength she has, while Shay befriends a would-be magician/cabbie whose optimism shines a tiny light into this world of wandering darkness.
X is not a pleasant film, at least from a subject matter standpoint. There is plentiful nudity and loads of sexual content, but this is not a celebration of Eros. Instead, it’s a bath in the wanton gratuity of a metropolitan realm that would exploit anyone for the sake of some release. Men proposition and punish young girls who don’t abide by their prurient, piggish demands while fellow hookers ‘hire’ sadistic street scum to knife and kick those they think are stealing their territory. It’s a brutal, frank, and often graphic look at the grimy underbelly of the still simmering smut trade. Thankfully, Hewitt knows when to pull back, to avoid the sensational while keeping the shock value. From full frontal exposure (both male and female) to random acts of physical assault, X meters out is misery in narratively vital viciousness. Without the inherent level of horror, we’d never find ourselves rooting for such rotten characters.
Sure, Holly is a decent lady, helping others and using her friendships as a means of managing the psychological scaring her job provides. But when a companion cannot be reached by phone or front door, does she investigate to make sure she’s okay? Does she stop the evening’s pursuit to play detective and determine her gal pal’s fate? Nope, she selfishly simply stomps off, angrily scouring the streets for someone to replace her missing mate. At this point in her life, Holly is all about the pursuit. She even abandons Shay at one point, leaving her for dead when it’s clear she could help. This is not a hooker with a heart of gold, or a fallen women with a decent inner core. No, this is a business woman, and all throughout X Viva Bianca plays her as no nonsense, no bullshit… and oddly enough, no hope.
Hanna Mangan Lawrence is much more ambiguous as Shay. She has a haunting backstory (on reminiscent of the opening of last year’s Oz underworld crime film Animal Kingdom) and a gritty determination that makes her initial forays into street walking all the more painful, especially given the dirty old man customers she seems to attract. This is a brave actress and she offers several brave turns here, from moments of pretend gumption to run for your life like purpose. She’s the anchor of X, a recognizable key to entering this otherwise foreign—and quite foul—place. While we want both Holly and Shay to survive their horrific Hell night, we really hope the latter finds a way out. The former had her time and let it slip. Shay is someone who can be saved before the doors of desperation close completely.
For his part Hewitt is all slickness and style. He doesn’t delve deep into the personalities at play here. Instead, X roams the various locations like a voyeur, peeking into places it really shouldn’t. While there are odd moments of flash here (there hasn’t been this much split screen in a major motion picture since Brian DePalma gave up his haughty Hitchcock homages in the ‘70s) and a tired techno drone to the score, the filmmaking does help define the atmosphere of dread. There are sequences that mimic the finest action films and moments of suspense that keep you on the edge of your seat. But Hewitt also treats the carnality with a similar slackness. He is not out to arouse as much as make the violence a direct outflow of the rampant sexuality.
It all comes together terrifically in a film that while blessed with more than a couple loose ends, still offers a stunning visual and emotional rollercoaster ride. It takes a while getting started and seems to follow a particular formula until—BANG! —a gunshot changes everything. Then the ID of the killer makes the situation even more intense. At the beginning, X appeared to be a simple story of a prostitute who wants to leave her former life behind and spend the rest of her days among the fanciful locations of a playful Paris. Instead, it turns into an ordeal that brings the entire nightmare of her past profession directly into the path of her City of Light fantasy. It may be as old as time itself but this is one story of crime and the corporeal that survives its contemporary update.