Working as an impressive prequel that could play well for newcomers and those who saw Ti West’s previous feature, X, Pearl leans into camp, horror, and drama in equal measure. Anchored by an inspired performance by Mia Goth, it’s the kind of movie that will undoubtedly become even grander and sillier to fans in the years to come. Fortunately for us all, the 80s-era MaXXXine is coming soon to complete the X trilogy.
Set in 1918, Pearl is top-tier Ti West. His love of capturing the film styles of specific time periods alongside his own modern-day observations hasn’t been this strong since 2009’s The House of the Devil. Is it scary? Not exactly, but other vital elements like an ample supply of gore and a soundtrack that resonates deliver the goods big time. Best of all, the titular character is a compelling mix of manic killer and final girl. As Pearl, Mia Goth delivers one of the year’s best performances.
For those that didn’t see X, here’s a non-spoiler summary. Released a mere six months ago, the story was set in 1979, following a group of twenty-somethings who set out to shoot an adult film in the rural south at a remote farm. Things end badly for all involved. In the movie, Goth plays Maxine and (under a lot of makeup) a woman in her 80s named Pearl – who lives on the property where said porno is to be shot. Elderly Pearl is far from a helpless senior citizen.
West shot the film in New Zealand as a stand-in for Texas. Before shooting began, he asked Goth if she’d be interested in also making a prequel using some of the same sets but set six decades in the past. According to the live stream featuring West and Goth that followed my screening, she was 100% onboard. She and West ended up co-writing the picture together. Eliot Rockett was the cinematographer on both, and other key crew members also stayed on board.
In the 90s, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai did a dual shoot after he had extra film stock for one of his best films, Chungking Express. The result was Happy Together. Shortly after wrapping The House of the Devil, West shot The Innkeepers at the same hotel he used for the cast and crew’s lodgings. Pearl is the first time I recall the “extra movie” being the superior film.
One of its strongest aspects is how relevant the setting feels. Pearl lives on a farm with her German-born parents. She struggles to care for her invalid father (Matthew Sutherland) while her mother, Ruth (a commanding Tandi Wright), condemns her at every turn. The Spanish flu has gripped the nation, so Pearl wears a mask whenever she goes into the local town for supplies. She even wears a mask when she sneaks into a picture house to see the follies dance on the big screen. All the while, her mother won’t let her forget about any possible infection from the pandemic.
Like many of us in 2020 and beyond, Pearl is trapped but physically and mentally. However, West isn’t interested in the politics of how the pandemic affects the nation. He’s focused solely on how such a way of life affects this young woman. And boy, is she “particular.” An early scene displays right away that something is off with Pearl. Has she always been this way? Is her disregard for life, human or otherwise, a product of her situation? Is there something deeper going on?
It can’t be understated just how darn good Goth is in this role. Her commitment level might be unsettling (and knowingly funny, too), but it’s never dull. One of the story’s big highlights is a long monologue that rarely cuts away from her face. Here, more than the bodies that have piled up, or even a crazy dance number, is the heart of the film. Just Pearl pouring her heart out to someone, anyone. And the sinking feeling that every minute her speech keeps going, there’s less chance the world won’t be made worse by her actions. It’s fascinating stuff.
The film hosts a ton of fun nods to the early part of the 20th century. Goth, at times, seems to be doing an anxiety-driven send-up of Judy Garland’s iconic role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (The opening title sequence is well crafted from the era too). West, who also edited the film, never ventures into spoof or satire. As in X (which I enjoyed quite a bit), the supporting cast, which includes a local projectionist (David Corenswet), aren’t easily made into dumb dumbs that exist to be sliced and diced.
Like the twister that swept up Dorothy to Oz, it is Pearl that will be worked up into a frenzy, destroying everyone in her path. In Pearl, we somehow (sort of) root for her to get off her farmland, which is a credit to West’s direction and Goth’s focus. Speaking of, stay for the one-take closing credits. I dare you to look away!