I had reasonably high expectations for “X,” an unabashed ode to slasher movies and sleaze grindhouse released earlier this year. Unfortunately, it ended up looking more like a trashy counterfeit than something remotely fresh. But then it was announced that director Ti West secretly shot a prequel immediately after filming for “X” wrapped. That prequel was “Pearl,” an origin story for the first film’s antagonist in 1918. Its trailer offered a sleek and deliciously brutal burst of Technicolor-infused horror. I was instantly intrigued.
Because of “X”, I entered “Pearl” very cautiously. After seeing it, I left the movie mostly impressed with what West had put together. “Pearl” is impossible to put in one box. It’s a rural horror film, a psychological thriller, a dark comedy, a gonzo exploitation film. And while it doesn’t all fit together perfectly, West’s focus is tighter and he’s not straying off course or getting bogged down in as much nonsense this time around.
“Pearl” is really West’s baby. He directs, edits, co-writes and co-produces. But most people leave the film talking about its star, Mia Goth (who is also credited as a co-writer). The British actress pulls out her strong Southern accent and steps back into the shoes of Pearl, a troubled young woman with a twisted imagination who dreams of becoming a movie star. Goth played an older Pearl in “X,” but here she can put aside the heavy prosthetics to play a younger Pearl at a crucial time in her life.
The film’s lavish opening takes us back to “X’s” farm. West ushers us into the barn, opening its large double doors to reveal a sun-drenched yellow farmhouse surrounded by bright green grass. It’s almost Rockwellian in its presentation. Still, before the opening credits roll, West and Goth give us a jolt just to let us know that the world we’ve entered is anything but idyllic. And from that point on, there’s a lingering sense of unease, which West maintains until the film’s eerie final frame.
I can’t overstate how critical that feeling of unease is to the film’s success. West wants us to know from the start that Pearl is not well. Of course, people who have seen “X” already have a good idea. But for those who haven’t, West makes it clear in the opening moments. With this understanding comes anticipation. We know bad things happen. We know she’s going to crack. The question becomes when and how? What motivates her? How far does she go? West has us in the palm of his hand. It’s just up to him to deliver the reward. For the most part it does.
While the all-pervading shudder of dread is vital, Goth’s performance is the centerpiece. Aside from the theatrical allusions in a few scenes, Goth really sells us on his damaged persona. But what stands out most is her ability to make Pearl feel uncomfortably deranged while winning our empathy. Some of it is down to West’s storyline, which gives Pearl room to grow and her situation to metastasize. But most come from Goth who captures all the twisted sides of her character.
“Pearl” is set as World War I and the equally deadly Spanish Flu epidemic were coming to an end, but the repercussions of both were still being felt across the globe. With her husband, Howard, away at war, Pearl must tend to her parents’ farm and help her stern German mother (Tandi Wright) take care of her wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland). But Pearl’s heart is elsewhere. She dreams of fame and has an unhealthy obsession with being a movie star. She sees it as her ticket out of the farm, much to the chagrin of her cynical mother.
There really isn’t a deep, complicated narrative to follow. After expanding on its setting and circumstances, the film simply follows Pearl over the next few days as she encounters people and situations that will ultimately play into her inevitable downfall. Among the key players is a handsome, bohemian theater projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows Pearl a deer movie he picked up in Europe (a lazy, stuck-up attempt to tie in with “X” and the third film in come). And there’s Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), Pearl’s sister-in-law who accompanies her to an audition for a church-sponsored dance troupe.
This simple yet effective approach paints a rich and detailed portrait of Pearl for us, one that grows more unsettling by the minute. Along the way, West uses his story to comment on life in quarantine, pandemic-era paranoia, and the damaging effects of isolation. There’s also a brilliantly layered examination of family dysfunction that shows how deep pain can turn into something toxic and destructive.
“Pearl” is a deliciously messy slice of period horror that will have you laughing one minute and squirming in your seat the next. It enhances “X” in almost every discernible way, but it’s really its own movie that feels out of time. The visual craftsmanship, the ingenious score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, and of course the next-level performance from Mia Goth are all key to realizing West’s vision. And while there’s reason to be wary of the teased third film, that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of “Pearl,” which is quite capable of standing on its own.
88 Cast: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell
Director: Ti West