PEARL (2022), the new horror movie by director/writer Ti West, is a prequel to his earlier horror movie from this year, X (2022), which so far is among my favorite horror movies of the year.
X told the story of a group of people setting out to make a porn movie on a farm, but their plans were thwarted by the elderly couple who owned the farm, who seemingly took offense to an X-rated movie being made on their property. The story took place in the 1970s, and the main character was a young woman named Maxine (Mia Goth), who was making the porn movie because she wanted to become a famous movie star. Goth also played the elderly farm owner Pearl (under heavy prosthetics and make-up), who in the words of PSYCHO’s Norman Bates, just “goes a little crazy” at times. Pearl, seemingly upset that these young people were having sex, while she and her elderly husband were not, flipped out and went on a brutal murder spree in the film’s final reel.
PEARL is her story, explaining a little bit of her history and how she became the person we saw in X.
PEARL takes place in 1918, during World War I, amid the pandemic of the Spanish flu, and when we meet Pearl (Mia Goth) she is living on her farm in Texas with her parents, her excruciatingly strict mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) who is now a mute invalid. Pearl’s husband Howard is away fighting in the war.
Life is hard. Money is tight, and Ruth believes they must make it on their own. She doesn’t trust other people, and she fears that their German ancestry will be held against them. However, making it “on their own” mostly involves making Pearl do all the difficult jobs, like feeding her invalid father and cleaning him after bowel movements. Pearl just wants to escape. She loves the movies and wants to become a dancer like she sees in the movies.
She befriends the local projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to follow her dreams. He also introduces her to black market sex movies, which he says will become legal one day. When there’s a dance try-out at the local church, Pearl sees this as her chance to escape from the farmhouse. But her mother will have none of it, and she tells Pearl she’s a failure and she won’t succeed in her dreams. She also adds that she knows how Pearl really is, and that she sees the things Pearl does when she thinks no one is watching, and she pretty much tells Pearl that she’s not normal and that because of this she will frighten people and will never succeed.
Wow. Can someone say, Mommie Dearest?
Well, she’s not wrong, and when Pearl snaps later in the movie, we see just exactly how it is that Pearl frightens people.
PEARL is a decent follow-up to X, although I liked X better, as that film paid homage to the 1970s horror flicks as well as 1970s porn movies and captured the flavor of both. PEARL doesn’t have this added element. It takes place in 1918, but it’s not shot as an homage to that time period or to silent movies. It’s filmed in bright vibrant colors, which seem to embody Pearl’s wide-eyed hopes and dreams. At the end of the day, this one is about exactly what its title says it’s about, Pearl.
It’s all about Pearl. And to that end, it’s mildly interesting. Strangely, it almost feels like it’s a back story for the other character Mia Goth played in X, Maxine, as Maxine wanted to be a star more than anything. Here in PEARL, we see that Pearl too wants to be a star more than anything. It’s what drives her throughout this movie. When I saw X, I believed that the elderly Pearl flipped out over the characters making a porn movie because she and her husband could no longer have sex, and she wanted to have sex. That’s what the movie implied. I mean, we saw scenes of Pearl crawling into bed with Maxine. We didn’t see scenes of Pearl yearning to be a dancer.
Yet here in PEARL, that’s all Pearl wants, to be a dancer and to become famous, both in the hopes of getting off her farm. The sex angle is here, but it’s downplayed. There is one scene where Pearl has a romantic fantasy with a scarecrow, but when the projectionist shows Pearl the silent sex movie, she’s hardly aroused. Pearl behaves like any normal woman who’s longing for her husband to return would behave. While she displays various abnormalities, all of which lead to murder, her sex drive isn’t one of them. Yet, this is the side of her personality which seemed to be driving her to kill in X. But the events in PEARL say otherwise.
On the other hand, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I just find it odd that Pearl in X didn’t speak of wanting to become a star or react to Maxine’s wanting to be a star, and that when we do see the beginnings of Pearl’s violent side here in PEARL, none of it has to do with sex, which was the prevalent theme in X.
The best and darkest scenes in PEARL are between Pearl and her mother, and these are the most disturbing and painful sequences in the movie. The sequence at the dinner table where the two characters eventually come to blows is the most powerful scene in the movie. The subsequent murders are well-staged and elaborate, but they’re not all that scary. The murders worked better in X.
PSYCHO was mentioned in X, and there were hints in that movie linking Pearl’s behavior to Norman Bates’, and so I was happy to see some more PSYCHO references here in PEARL. In PSYCHO, Bates hides his mother’s body in the fruit cellar. Here, Pearl hides her mother’s body in the root cellar.
The alligator is back and swimming in the waters around the farm, and Pearl seems to be its best friend, as she feeds it regularly. Technically, it could be the same alligator from X, but with 50 years between the two stories, it would be plenty old. It’s probably a different alligator. Either way, the alligators sequences in X were scarier.
X also had stronger characters.
Both films have Mia Goth though, and she’s terrific in both movies. I’ve been a fan of Goth’s since I first saw her in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a horror movie I liked a lot. Goth is perfect as Pearl. At times, she seems so wide-eyed and innocent, and at others, she seems so very, very bad. Her expression during the last shot of the film, as the end credits begin, which is not a freeze frame, says it all, as we see the full gamut of emotions: surprise, happiness, tears, fear, and finally vulnerability and steadfastness. It’s a terrific performance. She’s the best part of the movie.
Goth also co-wrote the screenplay with Ti West, and it’s her first screenwriting credit. The script does a decent job explaining Pearl’s backstory, even if at times it seems as if it’s trying to tell Maxine’s backstory. The point I guess is that in X, Pearl would have seen a lot of herself in Maxine. But the overall composition of the film isn’t quite as solid as X, which had better characters and also served as an homage to two film types, 1970s horror and porn.
Tandi Wright is icy cold as Pearl’s mother Ruth, and I’m tempted to say the audience won’t feel much sympathy for her when she gets her comeuppance, but in that aforementioned sequence at the dinner table, when tempers flare, Ruth unleashes and lets out how unhappy she is now, and that she is supposed to be a wife not a mother to her husband. Wright allows the audience to see how she became the heartless woman she is in the movie.
David Corenswet is dashing as the confident young projectionist. He’s also one of the more underutilized characters in the story, as for a time it seemed as if he was going to have more of an impact with Pearl, but that’s not the case.
Ti West films PEARL with big bold bright swipes, embodying Pearl’s hopes and dreams, and so this one doesn’t look like a horror film. The violence and murders don’t come until late in the game, and they grow more gruesome as they go along, although none here are quite as powerful as the sequences found in X.
PEARL is a decent prequel, and although it’s not as good as X, it’s still a showcase for Mia Goth, and she’s the reason to see this movie, as her performance brings Pearl and all her madness to insane painful life.
I give it two and a half stars.