“Get down to the barn and feed the animals, like you promised you would.”
That’s one of the opening lines of Pearl, and unintentionally foreshadows a horrific bout with destiny. For Pearl (Mia Goth) does what she’s told, but she never promised what animals she would end up feeding and why. Pearl wants to be a star, she wants to be in movies, in musicals. Her daydreams take her into vivid fantasies that mimic these glamorous professions. However, her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), a German sympathizer with a silver tongue, wants her help on the farm. An endeavor that’s more imperative given the state of Pearl’s catatonic father (Matthew Sunderland). Pearl’s reality is one of hard work and endless devotion, but her dreams sparkle with her in the spotlight. However, that gleam in her eye belies something much darker in her heart.
As many already know, Pearl is director Ti West’s prequel to the 2022 slasher X. But as I’ve stated before, prequels are really sequels, as they’re made with the context of the original in mind. Thus, Pearl is the second part of a 3 part trilogy centering on obsession, fame, pornography, and depravity. When Pearl is shown a scene from a dirty movie, by a flirtatious projectionist (David Corenswet), it is her introduction to an emerging genre. She sees herself tempted by fame and attention, but also by sex. A noted desire, considering her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), is away in World War I. Pearl’s lonely reality means she has no great memories of the past to draw upon, and her present sucks. Thus, it makes sense that she gets lost in entertainment – in escapism, and in lust.
Pearl’s desires eventually crescendo when she has the opportunity to join a dance troupe, if she can only pass the audition. This leads to an interesting Catch-22 regarding how Ti West depicts the tension of this scene – by showing her ascent to the stage in slow motion. I can’t recall any noteworthy audition scenes filmed this way, so either it’s the first of it’s kind, or every prior version is so underwhelming and forgettable that this is the first time this approach to an audition has actually stood out; either is impressive. It leads to a captivating fantasy sequence, but Mia Goth’s performance still demands our attention. Pearl’s audition, despite the literal fireworks, isn’t awe-inspiring, it’s unsettling. That may mostly be because of what we as the audience know what Pearl has done and what she’s capable of, and it’s also due to Goth’s overly earnest smile, intended for warmth but is factually creepy.
Goth takes centerstage, as this is much more of a showcase for her specifically than X. Her performance may even lead to awards buzz in the winter. The character essentially wavers between three tempos – a southern “Aww shucks!” quality, blissful hypnosis, and manic lunacy. When she recites her name to a potential beau, with romance in her eyes, there’s so much sincerity you can forget the troubling behavior the character has already displayed. Her naivete often causes many of the film’s misadventures, such as when she loses a tiny piece of film roll near a cornfield. She goes so deep into this damn cornfield, you’d think she was searching for an overthrown football. But it leads to an unexpected sexual rendezvous, and one of Goth’s best line readings in the entire film, as she exclaims “I’M MARRIED!” This is a character teetering off the brink of sanity and reality, and it’s questionable if fulfilling her dreams will even solve her psychosis, or merely indulge her worst impulses.
What the film is aiming to give context to is what Pearl will grow to want in X. This is a story about missed opportunities, and the best way to illustrate that is the animosity and jealousy Ruth harbors for her ambitious daughter. It’s worth noting, since Mia Goth will garner the majority of praise, that Tandi Wright is giving a dynamite performance. Through her interpretation, Ruth is almost a Gothic antagonist, reminiscent of the evil stepmother in Cinderella. The character’s introduction is a physical record scratch, coming in to slap Pearl in the face with reality. Apropos, since Ruth is the embodiment of the forces that are calling for Pearl to embrace reality. The matriarch also throws down several bars, many of which seem obvious but are still hard to swallow. At one point, she warns Pearl:
“Getting what you want isn’t what’s important. Making the most of what you have is. Life rarely turns out how you expect. You need to be prepared for that if you ever want to be happy.”
Ruth resents her daughter and what her presence, along with a disabled husband, has done to Ruth’s own dreams. It’s an ugly mirror of what Pearl herself could turn into. Is she destined for greatness, or will she be a spectator forever?
Pearl joins the litany of genre films, especially horror flicks, that employ old school techniques to achieve a dream-like presentation. While X mimicked the cinéma vérité that was popular in the 1970s, Pearl uses technicolor to create a juxtaposition with it’s violent and seductive content. The biggest point of reference is The Wizard of Oz (1939), with a whimsy that is weaved into a visceral brutality amid sexual frustration. And there’s also a Scarecrow with no brain, but his fate is a little more risqué than his 1939 counterpart. However, Ti West is still heavily influenced by the slasher genre, so it stands to reason there remains visual references to the likes of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and yes, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But they’re only brief visual cues. This is not X, which is more of a traditional slasher flick. This is a character study on how people can be made to feel like commodities that are positioned to compete against each other. For Ruth, that means that Pearl isn’t allowed to have dreams, a retaliation to Ruth’s own misfortunes. For Pearl, it means tearing herself away from her domineering mother. But it also means competing with her lavish sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), who shares Pearl’s lofty aspirations. Consider that these characters are all a part of the same family, are all women, yet they’ve been positioned as passive aggressive rivals in the wheel of fortune of life.
West’s partnership with DP Eliot Rockett continues to produce a strong visual presentation, especially when depicting Pearl’s many daydreams (both aspirational and nihilistic). One in particular is an expertly edited nightmare, come to life with a rousing score and well-timed practical effects. There’s a hysterical scene where the bottom of a character’s clothing catches fire, we lose sight of them for a brief second, and they’ve turned into the Human Torch when the camera pans back. Matthew Sunderland has a particularly effective scene, where you’re not even certain what his expression is meant to convey until a single tear drop comes down his face. Speaking of crying, Goth has an expansive monologue that not only exhausts her tear ducts, but also goes on way too long… but then you want it to keep going so the absurdity can mount. Meanwhile, the film’s main musical theme is one of sarcastic hopefulness, equally wistful and unnerving. Think Twin Peaks, a score that recalls more simplistic works but also conveys a sense of dread. And the horror that comes from an American Dream unfulfilled.
We don’t see much of Pearl’s upbringing, but we know her psyche has been positioned to expect the worst. When Mitsy is astonished that she doesn’t appear nervous, prior to the audition, Pearl notes, “I guess I’m just used to the feeling.” At another point, Pearl opines the inability to appear ‘normal’, for fitting in will save her a lifetime of hardship. But isn’t fitting in the opposite of ‘X Factor’? It was the driving force of X, and it appears here as we learn that’s what the dance troupe is looking for. In X, Maxine is told she has ‘X Factor’, she has a reason to believe. But Pearl isn’t afforded the same encouragement for what makes her unique. It all harkens back to the film’s opening moments, when she goes down to feed the animals. But what we learn in those first minutes, is she’s feeding the darker side of her id, in a scene that also doubles as a callback (callforward???) to X. Which gives a lot of context to that movie’s story – for Pearl may feel she was born in the wrong era, before it paid to indulge your depravity. “You only get one take at this life,” she’s told at a key moment, a harbinger for years of regret. For where’s her fulfillment, and why do all those young, horny kids get to have all of the fun?