As filmmaker Ti West (The Sacrament, In A Valley of Violence, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever), in collaboration with lead actress, co-writer and producer Mia Goth (A Cure For Wellness, Marrowbone, Suspiria (2018)), was preparing to introduce us to the South-Texan microworld of the elderly and tragically deranged homesteader Pearl and the young, ambitious and lascivious actress Maxine, A24 didn’t hesitate to greenlight the project.
And by the time X was released last year, Pearl had already been shot as well, back to back with X. Now, Pearl is upon us, billed as a prequel and a slasher, and it turns out it’s neither. It’s an origins story, a dark (and violent) period drama and, most of all, a character study.
The film takes us back to 1918 when the titular character was a young belle working the farm with her cold and strict mother Ruth (Tandi Wright, Black Sheep, Jack the Giant Slayer) and nursing her paralytic father (Matthew Sunderland, The Devil’s Rock, Bloody Hell). The world beyond their homestead is in the throes of the Spanish Flu epidemic and in the tail-end of World War I, and Pearl’s husband Howard left for Europe to join the war effort.
She’s full of hopes and dreams of escaping farm life and becoming a star on stage one day as she dances around in the barn with some of the farm animals serving as her audience. But we can also see that she’s deeply troubled as she mercilessly kills some of them, and violently mishandles her incapacitated father.
In typical Ti West fashion, he takes his sweet time showing us how Pearl gradually loses whatever marbles she still has left, as she clashes with her mother and takes up a promiscuous affair with the local movie theatre’s projectionist (David Corenswet, Affairs of State, Look Both Ways), who unintentionally fuels the rage that dwells within her desire for stardom by encouraging her to follow her dreams.
Pearl’s delusional dreamworld gradually caves in on her when Ruth’s discovery of a theatre leaflet leads to a violent showdown, the affair with the projectionist falls apart as he gets unsettled with her erratic behaviour, and she fails to pass the audition for a travelling troupe – something she had fixed her hopes of escaping farm life on, all ultimately culminating in Pearl’s 8-minutes long, disquieting and bloodcurdling monologue in which she acknowledges her abhorrence with herself but also resigns to how she was born to be and live. And as she prepares for Howard’s homecoming from the war, the movie ends on an unsettling still.
In my introductory lines, I said that Pearl is not a prequel, and I said this because it doesn’t function as one. It doesn’t answer any questions that the film it would be the prequel to, X, never even asked in the first place. I already knew going in that Pearl (the character) is dangerously deranged and tragically desperate in equal measure, and not going to get any better. And even if I didn’t know this because I never saw X, Pearl (the film) lets this be clearly known within 5 minutes from its opening.
All this may beg the question of why this movie even exists, but there’s a clear and for me quite definitive answer to that: because West and Goth wanted to tell Pearl’s story. And that’s as good a reason, arguably even the best one, to make any movie in the first place.
As such, Pearl can be viewed as part of a veritable film trilogy (remember those?), the third part of which, titled MaXXXine, is currently in post and expected to come out some time in 2023. The things that tie Pearl and X together are the character Pearl, and the farm where most of the stories take place until now. And yes, both films are very ‘Ti-Westy’ in terms of deliberate, at times near-glacial pacing giving the central characters ample time for onscreen development, and they’re packed with homage and tribute to the film-eras of yore.
Pearl may take place in 1918 but visually it could be a 50ies movie with its richly saturated Technicolor-like colour palette. This may seem like an anachronism and West reportedly wanted to initially do Pearl in black and white – something that A24 didn’t approve of, in all likelihood for fear of damaging its commercial viability. And even though I think I personally would have preferred the darker atmosphere it would have given the film, I can’t deny it still somehow ends up working in the film’s favour, or at the very least never works against it, giving it a pleasant retro esthetic and a visual intensity befitting the onscreen proceedings.
Where X had Goth’s Maxine as the central protagonist (and her elderly Pearl as the antagonist), that movie was first and foremost an ensemble affair. Not so with the film Pearl. Here, Goth takes the entire stage, front and center, carrying the film’s full 103 minutes’ runtime weight on her own shoulders. It must have been quite a challenge, and West makes her go deep at times, but when all is said and done I can only say that she passes with flying colours.
As she should, because the entire movie hinges so much on her performance that it would have been a total disaster had she been out of her depth. But Mia Goth proves here that she’s the real deal with an impressive performance that commands attention and investment, even when it’s difficult to sympathize with Pearl’s plight.
The movie is about Pearl’s descent into murderous madness and, ultimately, her cathartic resignation. There’s enough blood, gore and putrid stuff going around to satisfy those needy for it in film, but it’s definitely no murder-a-minute slash-a-thon. An argument could be made that Pearl doesn’t even tell a real dramatic story; in terms of character arch, one could, at best, hold the position that the film enshrines her as how she already was from the get-go.
Pearl’s crazy, kills some people because things don’t go her way, resigns to her situation but is still crazy, and ends up just how she began minus the people she killed. But this would sell the film short. Pearl is not based on plot-driven narrative and there’s not a whole lot I can’t say about it for fear of spoiling anything. There are no conflicts, mysteries, plot twists, resolutions or pay-offs.
West is making sure that the things that matter for the film he wanted to create here are done just right: his lead actress’s performance, how it’s set, filmed and recorded, and how it sounds (score and sound design are all magnificent). It all results in a visually impressive film that’s not exciting, thrilling or scary per se, but immersive and weirdly moving, almost ponderous at times, punctuated by brief outbursts of nasty and bloody violence and the constantly captivating menace that Pearl’s character brings to the table.
I applaud and respect Ti West and Mia Goth for investing their talents and efforts in establishing and developing the world of Pearl and Maxine, as I tip my cap (I’m a baseball guy) to the people of A24 for getting behind it. The world of film needs more people like this sticking out their necks to make something new and viable with the commitment it entails, and put it out there.
West’s movies may not necessarily tick all my personal like-boxes (I don’t mind slow but I prefer more dark and disquieting menace) and may not be for everyone anyway – those that seek jump scares, fast spectacle, exotic locations, elaborate set pieces, big-money shots and lots of noise best steer way clear of this. But whoever wants to get to know Pearl and have a look into the dark depths of her madness and despair gets a welcome that’s both warm and chilling.
Pearl is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms from A24.