Mia Goth - Pearl
David Corenswet - The Projectionist
Tandi Wright - Ruth
Matthew Sunderland - Pearl’s Father
Emma Jenkins-Purro - Mitzy
Alistair Sewell - Howard
Genre - Horror/Thriller/Drama
Running Time - 102 Minutes
Trapped on her family’s isolated farm, Pearl must tend to her ailing father under the bitter and overbearing watch of her devout mother. Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl’s ambitions, temptations, and repressions all collide, in the stunning, technicolor-inspired origin story of X’s iconic villain.
Ti West impressed many earlier in the year with his return to horror with X, an obvious homage to 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and 1977’s EATEN ALIVE with a more sexually liberated and repressed twist. Considering all the good horror we’ve gotten so far in 2022, X still remains the standout because it came out of nowhere and pushed a lot of the right buttons for audiences to remember it and to continue going back to it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on many Top 10 Horror Lists for 2022.
The real surprise came after the end credits of X, where a trailer for a prequel called PEARL was revealed with X star, Mia Goth. Filmed secretly at the same time as X, Ti West made PEARL as a way to expand the X universe by explaining Pearl’s justifications for her strange behavior in X, while showcasing Mia Goth’s talents in a bigger role. PEARL was an automatic must watch in my personal opinion, considering how much I enjoyed X. Learning more about any of those characters grabbed my attention right away and I really looked forward to this prequel.
Those expecting a repeat of X will probably be disappointed by PEARL. This prequel is pretty much the antithesis of what Ti West did before, making PEARL its own thing while connecting it to X. In fact, I think the existence of PEARL actually makes X a better film, given that we can now understand the villains’ motivations in that film in a more sympathetic light, although their actions were still horrific. PEARL is not a pointless film just to create a movie universe, but a window to the character of Pearl’s soul to provide the audience answers to many questions asked in the previous film. I think it was a smart storytelling and business move that will increase the rewatchability of X.
Unlike the Tobe Hooper inspirations of X, PEARL is Ti West’s demented vision of THE WIZARD OF OZ. And by that, I mean Dororthy Gale didn’t wish for somewhere over the rainbow, losing her mind being stuck in Kansas and failing at any chance of going from a black and white world to a colored one. Pearl wants to be a movie star, feeling she has the talent to make it to the big time. Unfortunately, she’s stuck being an army wife on her parents’ farm, having to take care of her invalid father with her strict mother. It doesn’t help when there’s a pandemic going on, making Pearl’s mother so cautious and paranoid that her demand for control pushes Pearl to the edge.
PEARL is a character study on a young woman trying to break the chains that life has contained her in, forcing her to do malicious things to escape reality. While Pearl does bad things to get her way, her situation helps us understand why she behaves the way she does and why she does the things she does. Her reality and her dreams for a better life clash in every way, making her crack mentally and emotionally until it’s too late for everyone involved. Her mother always berates Pearl for having dreams, feeling Pearl is ungrateful for what she has provided for her - even though Pearl catches her mother crying in her sleep, showing that the two are very much alike emotionally. Pearl’s father is a burden to his illness, making her mother bitter and Pearl making attempts to end his life as a way to move on. Even when Pearl’s in-laws want to help the family out with food and other goodies, her mother is too proud to take charity as well as being afraid of whatever germs the in-laws may have. It’s a messed up situation for everyone involved, which makes you realize this won’t end well at all.
It doesn’t get any better when Pearl goes to a movie theater [using her mother’s money, which isn’t much] and meets the projectionist of the theater. He’s charming, handsome and tells her all the things Pearl wants to hear. The Projectionist builds upon Pearl’s dreams and aspirations for a better life by escaping her farm by promising her trips to Europe and making her believe she can become a big star anywhere in the world. Also being sexually repressed due to her husband fighting in World War I and not knowing whether he’s dead or alive, Pearl sleeps with the Projectionist, making her clingy due to finally feeling wanted again. When the Projectionist is turned off by some of her behavior, Pearl lashes out and creates more trouble for herself. Not only is Pearl’s story a sad one, but it also explains her behavior in X and creates a level of sympathy one didn’t have for the character before.
If I did have any issues in the narrative, I do wish more was done with the pandemic subplot. Considering we’re still dealing with one now, it would have been interesting to see characters dealing with the subject more. Also, the tone can be all over the place. For every serious moment, it’s sometimes undermined by comedy. I get why that’s done because the humorous aspects create a bit of relief from the tension for the audience. But sometimes it gets to a point where you want to laugh at PEARL rather than laugh with PEARL. The balance between horror and comedy is always a slippery slope and I do think Ti West manages to successfully handle it for most of the film. But if a serious, horrific moment plays out that ends with some sort of punchline that takes away all the emotion from that moment, how am I supposed to really feel about what I just saw?
I respect the hell out of Ti West for not only filming two films back-to-back in secret, but making both of them so much different from the other. PEARL is a much livelier movie than X in terms of its visual presentation. Unlike the gritty and grindhouse look of X, PEARL is a homage to Technicolor movies with its saturated colors and beautiful landscapes. I loved that the interiors of Pearl’s home looked more muted than all the exteriors, really capturing Pearl’s emotional state and her outlook on her reality compared to her potential escape.
West also showcases various homages to other films in PEARL. I already mentioned THE WIZARD OF OZ, as the film mostly takes place on a farm. She also rides a bicycle into town like Dorothy would. Pearl even encounters a scarecrow in a very memorable scene that will definitely become a discussion point. The tense dinner scenes throughout the film remind me of 1976’s CARRIE, as Pearl and her mother argue over what’s best for Pearl, with Pearl wanting to try out for a dance trope so she can have a better life while her mother forbids it. There’s thunder and lightning and even a physical confrontation between the two that reminds me of that Last Supper scene in the film. There’s also a slow motion and split screen scene later in the film that’s pure Brian de Palma. And as Pearl becomes more murderous, she envokes Joan Crawford in 1964’s STRAIT-JACKET. And surprisingly, this all works and feels cohesive, adding depth to Pearl’s character and the world she lives in.
The cast is also wonderful. Tandi Wright is great as the overbearing and strict mother that conflicts with Pearl’s more free-spirited persona. Matthew Sunderland uses his facial expressions in effective ways as Pearl’s father. David Corenswet is suave and smooth as The Projectionist, as Corenswet definitely looks like an actor who would have been a huge star in Old Hollywood. Emma Jenkins-Purro is endearing and perky as Southern Belle Mitzy.
But PEARL belongs entirely to Mia Goth, who also co-wrote the film with Ti West to bring the character to life and explain her behavior in X. Goth captures your attention throughout. You root for her when she portrays Pearl chasing her dreams. You feel bad for her when she grows frustrated when those around her refuse to understand her. And you get a demented kick out of Goth when she takes Pearl to that devious level as she’s taking out anyone who stands in way of her dreams. Goth becomes more riveting as the film nears the end, where Goth just vents in a six-minute monologue. Then there’s the closing shot where Pearl just forces a smile at the camera during the end credits, losing the strength to keep it up and showing how sad and miserable she is behind her happy demeanor. If PEARL was any other genre but horror, I could easily see Goth being noticed for an Academy Award. She’s amazing in the film.
THE FINAL HOWL
Whether the film needed to be made or not, Ti West’s PEARL is another win for the writer-director in 2022. While X is the more exciting feature and will probably please more mainstream audiences with its direct and familiar approach, PEARL helps compliment X by developing an interesting backstory for that film’s main villain. Mia Goth’s performance is top notch, embodying the character’s flaws and quirks perfectly, making us root for her and feel sorry for her despite her character’s malevolent and twisted behavior. Ti West has created a twisted version of THE WIZARD OF OZ where Dororthy never gets to see that somewhere over the rainbow, growing more disturbed and delusional the longer she stays on that farm. The beautiful Technicolor homage, slo-mo and split screen editing that invokes Brian de Palma, and that telling final close-up on Goth’s face shows a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing in creating this mini-universe. While I wish some narrative beats were stronger or went deeper than they did, as I also wish the tone would have stayed a bit more consistent at times, PEARL is a worthy prequel that fans of West and X should definitely check out. Hopefully West and Goth can go 3-for-3 with MAXXXINE in 2023.