Pearl, directed by Ti West who shares a writing credit with star Mia Goth, is the prequel to 2021’s X and the story of how Pearl became the serial killer in X. The movie clocks in at almost two hours long, and it drags, which is a shame because of how entertaining a lot of it is. Actually filmed concurrently alongside X, Ti West’s Pearl takes place in 1918 toward the end of WWI and the beginning of the Spanish Flu pandemic, so much of the germaphobia makes the period piece almost feel contemporary. There are so many humorous elements in the movie that I would even call it a dark comedy, with some details that only an old movie buff might recognize.
When the movie starts, it feels like we’re about to step out of Dorothy Gale’s farmhouse and into the Technicolor world of Oz – the font and the score support this aesthetic. Pearl lives on a farm (the same farm from X) with her German mother and infirm father (Matthew Sunderland, who manages to play the emotional nuances of his role with just his eyes and breathing) while her husband is off in Europe fighting the war. A dangerous and isolating situation for the family in the midst of a pandemic, they also have to lie low because of the nativism and xenophobia that targeted German immigrants (which Pearl’s mother is) at the time.
Pearl is resentful of her lot in life, feeding and cleaning her father as well as the farm animals; she dreams of stardom as a dancing girl in the pictures. Interestingly enough, the plot is reminiscent of another Judy Garland film from the 1950s called Summer Stock in which Judy Garland’s character Jane stays home to look after the family farm while her sister travels with a touring theater group. Pearl’s monochromatic blue jean overalls over blue collared shirt is almost exactly what Jane wore when tending HER farm.
In Ti West’s Pearl, all Pearl really wants is to be loved, yet she lacks the ability to love others
While Pearl may be the villain of the movie, Pearl’s mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) is the Mommy Dearest type villain for Pearl, projecting all of her own disappointments onto Pearl, withholding affection, and making her feel small and hopeless. Ruth is also the first to voice what we all can see – there is something different and wrong with Pearl, and she will never be accepted in world beyond the farm. When all Pearl wants is to be loved, she finds none of that in the life she’s stuck with – and so she escapes into a lush fantasy where she is a dancing girl, although she’s only performing for the farm animals.
Her opportunity to actually SEE the films she fantasizes about comes when she goes into town to buy her father’s medicine, after which she meets the projectionist who tells her he can see her being successful in pictures – but then shows her her first stag film, making it obvious to the audience, but not the naïve Pearl what kind of films he’s actually talking about. As in X, which has far more graphic sex AND violence, Ti West’s Pearl continues to intermingle sex and violence, pleasure and pain. Pornography is clearly a running theme through X, Pearl, and the newly announced sequel to Pearl, MaXXXine.
Mia Goth gives an incredible performance as Pearl, but the entire movie hinges on that one performance
Mia Goth portrays a fascinating character in Ti West’s Pearl – someone who is naïve and yet a cold-blooded killer, someone who wants to be loved, yet lacks to capacity to love. Her shining achievement as an actress in this film is the end credits which force us to watch her face as she smiles brightly for the camera, but can’t maintain the image as she struggles to keep her negative emotions from showing through the façade. The problem with the film is the unevenness and the pacing. The uneven trajectory of the plot could be explained away with the instability of Pearl’s mental state and her desperate attempts to keep herself under control – only coming undone in moments of frustration, fear, and anguish.
The pacing though, THAT should be better. There is a very, VERY long speech late in the film that is a brilliant piece of acting, but it is an extended close-up where one’s attention could easily wander, eyes glazing over, checking your phone to see how long is left and if anyone has liked your check-in at the movie theater on social media. This is almost allegorical for all that is wrong with Ti West’s Pearl – moments of brilliance that just need to come more frequently to keep the audience tuned in to a plot that is almost entirely dictated by the internal struggles of a budding psychopath. After writing all of this, I realize I do like the movie, and it not being what I expected IS a good thing – but I won’t be down for a second viewing.
Pearl is in theaters now.
Does sexuality humanize characters in horror movies? Or is it just more gratuitous action? Let me know in the comments!