Movie Curiosities: Pearl

From the look of things, Ti West and his team are putting together a cinematic statement about the cyclical nature of time, the like of which could only be done across multiple films. With Pearl and X, we get to see how everything new eventually becomes old. The characters themselves — most especially those played by Mia Goth — demonstrate the dangers of refusing to let go of the starry-eyed past, such that those obsessions threaten the present and even the future. Yet the films themselves demonstrate that the past can still have value, imitating and interpreting the aesthetics and values of old to create something new.

-My recent second look at X

WHOO BOY. Turns out Pearl was all of that and a whole lot more.

We open in the familiar Texas farm from X, this time in the year of 1918. That places our film squarely in the early years of cinema (a good nine years before The Jazz Singer and the advent of talkies), the closing days of World War I, and right at the start of the infamous H1N1 “Spanish flu” pandemic. As a direct result, everyone in the massive group shots is wearing masks as a precaution for both H1N1 and SARS-CoV-2. Freaking brilliant.

As we first meet Pearl (a returning Mia Goth, now promoted to co-writer and exec producer), her husband (Howard, now played by Alistair Sewell) is still fighting in the war overseas. Thus Pearl is stuck at the isolated farm with her parents. (Her unnamed father is played by Matthew Sunderland. Her mother, Ruth, is played by Tandi Wright.)

Trouble is, Pearl’s father is an invalid confined to a wheelchair, incapable of doing much on his own except for breathing. Thus Ruth is running the show, obsessed with keeping Pearl on the farm where she can help with the chores and take care of Daddy. I might add that Pearl’s parents are German immigrants in a time of WWI nationalism, and there’s the pandemic to think about. Put it all together with Ruth’s insufferable pride and her uptight Christian beliefs, and she’s got any number of reasons to make sure Pearl never leaves the farm.

However, Pearl herself is actively straining against the limits of the homestead. She’s got dreams of getting off the farm so she can see the world and be a famous dancer on the silver screen. Of course, Ruth is an older woman who’s already had her dreams crushed, she doesn’t want Pearl chasing silly fantasies when there’s work to be done and needs to be met in the here and now… you know the deal.

So what if Pearl’s upset that Howard didn’t whisk her away off the farm to go see the world — Ruth’s happily-ever-after turned to shit, so quit your bitching and change your father’s diaper. Fuck the rest of the world and piss on their charity, we’ll make do with what little we have and to hell with the rest. The bottom line is that Ruth is miserable and she wants everyone else to share in her misery.

Unless maybe there’s something else going on here.

See, the film opens with Pearl skewering a goose with a pitchfork and then feeding it to the local crocodile. She does this for no reason whatsoever. And she does it literally over the title card. Thus the film tells us right up front that there’s something not quite right with Pearl, and maybe her parents know more about that than they’re letting on.

As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl is straight-up bipolar. Her desperation to get away from the farm and move on to something better manifests as entitled delusions. Her need for love and attention is so pathological that she’ll straight-up murder anyone who fears or hates her. So what in the nine hells do you think she’ll do if she bombs an audition?!

Throughout the entire film, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy in the fact that we know exactly how all of this is going to end up. We know that Pearl is never getting off the farm. We know she’ll never be a star or any kind of celebrity. We know she’s going to die alone and unloved after aging into a narcissistic sex-starved homicidal maniac.

But more than all of this, the real tragedy where Pearl is concerned is the certainty that her youth and beauty will indeed fade. We know she won’t merely age into someone as small-minded and bitter as her mother, she’s going to turn into something even worse. And she’s going to end up dead at the hands of another young and gorgeous aspiring starlet — one whom Pearl quite correctly and astutely recognizes as a kindred spirit.

While X dealt with the relationship between the laws and restrictions of mundane reality versus the high-flying escapism of fantasy, that film primarily did so through pornography. Pearl opens up that concept to the entire medium of cinema itself, then a new and exciting innovation with unlimited potential to change the world and make anyone a star. And of course we’ve got the interplay of old versus new — while X explored the concept through a conflict between young amateur pornographers and a washed-up wannabe star, Pearl explores it through the more straightforward concept of kids versus parents.

But Pearl adds something new to the mix: Nihilism. See, it bears remembering that Pearl utterly loathes her farm life with every fiber of her being. She despises the aches and pains of life, and she especially loathes having nothing while other lucky people get to have everything. She’s so dangerously jealous of the stars on the silver screen, so pathologically envious of those who get to live out her fantasy, she would literally rather kill and die than go without it.

Thusly, Pearl idolizes death in a way that makes for some chillingly macabre imagery. I’m loathe to list any specific examples, but there’s a particular roast pig that’s used in a gut-churning way at the end — deeply disturbing in the best way.

But what makes the nightmarish imagery all the more effective is the contrast with the Technicolor magic seen through the rest of the movie. A particular highlight is the dance break roughly an hour in — bright and colorful and jingoistic, yet every bit as demented and painfully happy as Pearl herself. Yes, X did something similar with the porno shoots, but it makes a huge difference when we’re seeing the product of one character’s twisted imagination, as opposed to a collaboration filmed through a camera lens.

Put simply, while X dealt with a lot of these same themes and ideas, they were all explored and portrayed and discussed between an ensemble. With this movie, it’s all on Pearl. This one character is going through more development than the six characters of X put together. And Mia Goth carries it all like a goddamn Olympian.

Goth shows a preternatural and frankly disturbing knack for going from sweetie to psycho and back again with astonishing speed. As an actor, a dancer, and a bona fide tour de force, Goth shows the full power of her range as a performer and comes out looking like a horror star Hall-of-Famer.

I could point to the aforementioned dance break, but my own personal favorite highlight comes roughly 80 minutes in. For what had to have been at least five minutes, Goth pours her heart and her guts and her tears onto the screen in a spellbinding monologue, shot in extreme close-up and all in one continuous take. I swear, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, captivated by this jaw-dropping performance. But more than that, I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I wanted the camera to stay on her, or if I wanted to see what would happen when we finally cut away.

While this is indisputably Goth’s show, she’s acting off a serviceable roster of supporting actors. I was especially fond of David Corenswet as an unnamed love interest, and also Emma Jenkins-Purro as an effervescent blonde who might as well have a dotted line tattooed on her neck. In both cases, I got a huge kick out of these two sympathetic and well-meaning characters slowly coming to realize that Pearl wasn’t the least bit what they had come to expect and now they’re in over their heads. Tandi Wright does a passable job playing the overbearing mother, but I almost wish the filmmakers had leaned harder into making the character any fun to hate. Sunderland doesn’t really get to do much except sit in a wheelchair, Sewell doesn’t show up until the film is practically over… and that’s it for the supporting cast.

Granted, I’m sure the small cast size was a significant reason why this movie and X could’ve been made during the height of COVID, especially in such a notoriously pandemic-paranoid country as New Zealand. The unfortunate downside is that both movies are lamentably short on kills — Pearl even more so. That said, it bears mentioning that the victim pool of X was rather unsympathetic by design, while the supporting cast of Pearl (with the exception of Ruth) is far more sympathetic than the namesake character. It makes for a slightly different flavor, and I respect that in a sequel.

To wrap up with a couple of miscellaneous side notes, the sex and nudity in this movie are limited to an extremely brief demo of an early French porno film — just enough for a thread of continuity with the other films. Speaking of which, don’t bother sitting through the end credits — all you’ll get is the exact same Maxxxine trailer that’s been on YouTube for the past couple of weeks.

While X was a straightforward slasher film built on the tried-and-true combo of gore and tits, Pearl is more of a psychological horror built on a powerhouse lead performance from Mia Goth. It’s a film that examines its themes through exploring the hellish landscape of Pearl’s mind, with results more than captivating enough to hold the audience’s attention between kills.

The best compliment I can pay to Pearl and X is that while each film is more than capable of standing on its own, the both of them serve to improve each other. See them in whichever order you want, but if you’re in for a disturbing work of cross-generational horror, definitely watch both.

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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: Pearl

  1. Both X and Pearl are definitely two of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years. I appreciate the fact anyone can watch both of these separately without knowing about the other and they still would work on their own. I can’t recommend people enough to see either one of them.

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