‘Pearl’ Review: Ti West Makes His Best Film Yet With ‘X’ Prequel
By Daniel Rester
Mia Goth already gave two of the best performances of this year in Ti West’s ’70s horror throwback X. Now she adds a third with her work in Pearl, a prequel that was secretly made alongside X. West lets Goth loose as she electrifies in every scene in Pearl. A horror icon is born.
Pearl tells the story of the title character, who was the elderly antagonist in X. Goth gets to strip away the old woman makeup this time though as the film is an origin story taking place in 1918. West and Goth, who co-wrote the script together, show how Pearl initially goes down her dark and murderous path.
Pearl grows up on the same remote farm as the one in X, helping her demanding mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) take care of her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland). The family of German immigrants also face the Spanish Flu pandemic and WWI as part of their everyday lives; Pearl’s husband is off fighting in Europe. But Pearl dreams of being a dancer and actress and will let nothing get in her way of achieving stardom.
Though they share the farm setting and some themes, Pearl and X feel like their own individual films while still complimenting each other. While X feels like a grittier slasher in line with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and focuses on a group, Pearl nods its head to silent films (including the early porno A Free Ride) and is more of a character study that just focuses on her. It is a slasher too, but one in a more unique time period for the subgenre and one that puts character development over kills (there are still some brutal deaths though, including some with an axe).
West’s film is lurid in look, mimicking the Technicolor dazzle of a picture like The Wizard of Oz (1939). The editing swipes and swelling music are purposely old-school too. At times it feels like such techniques would be more fitting for a film taking place in 1942 rather than 1918, but the touches are still enjoyable and fresh choices for a slasher. The movie posters (including the 1917 Cleopatra) and silent dancing troupe films seen feel more appropriate to the aesthetic of the time setting.
West builds the tension patiently in Pearl (maybe a touch too slowly at times). She does some off-putting things early on, but then he just lets us get to know the sweet and relatable side to her for a long stretch. There are even some romantic scenes with a projectionist character, who is expertly played by David Corenswet. When Pearl eventually fully snaps, there is a layer of poignancy to it because we have come to care about her in some ways.
Of course West couldn’t have pulled this trickiness off if Goth wasn’t committed to it, both on the writing and acting fronts. But she dives into the project and the two artists are constantly on the same wavelength. Goth is great in every scene, but there is a tragic monologue held in an unbroken shot that is especially masterful. Oscar Nominations are rare for horror performances, but Goth truly deserves some consideration for Pearl.
A24 and West are already planning a sequel to X called MaXXXine, which will have Goth returning to her other character she played in X. After two hits, one can only hope West and Goth pull off a strong third chapter. It will be hard to top – or even match – Pearl though.
My Grade: 8.3/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
Running Time: 1h 42min
Pearl opened in theaters on September 16, 2022.