Mia Goth solidifies her reign as a modern day Scream Queen in this profound prequel to Ti West’s X
Earlier this year, Ti West returned to the world of moviemaking after a six year absence and delivered his best and most commercially successful work up to that point: X. Set during the 70s at a remote Texas farmhouse, the film follows a group of young, ambitious and unsuspecting entrepreneurs attempting to shoot an amateur film when a killer or two starts to pick them off one by one. Taking inspiration from the likes of slashers like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and comedic dramas like Boogie Nights, X was an exceptional step above the rest of the horror class this year.
At the end of that film, West surprised audiences with the announcement of a prequel, one already shot and ready to go just in time for the Halloween horror season. Pearl is set decades in the past and serves as a look at how its titular character came into her murderous ways. Mia Goth, who blew audiences away with her dual performances in X, returns to reprise her role as a young Pearl living with her parents on that same ominous Texas farm. Miraculously, it’s an even more outstanding showcase of Goth’s acting talents and West’s renewed filmmaking sensibilities. Much like X, Pearl is a stunning piece of work all its own and one of the best films of the year.
In 1918, both World War I and the Spanish flu are dominating the headlines. Pearl, a young, pretty and whimsical country girl with big dreams, works long days on her family’s farm tending to the animals, the land, and her sick and infirmed father (Matthew Sunderland). Inspired by the flashy and exciting movies she takes herself to see at the local cinema, Pearl has aspirations of leaving home behind to make it as a famous chorus girl. Standing in the way is her mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), who informs Pearl that life isn’t always the sunshine and roses that one hopes for, and insists that she stay on the farm to tend to her responsibilities to it and her family. A girl can only take so much.
West’s film trades the gritty grindhouse exploitations of X for a technicolor sorta-melodrama filled with both wonder and yes, terror. Pearl pays tribute to a number of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Wizard of Oz (Pearl even dances with a scarecrow at one point) and takes notes from various other sources like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mary Poppins and others. Beyond just pure aesthetics, West and his team also successfully match the tones of those films as well; that coming-of-age feeling of longing for adventure, romance and a life far greater than you’ve been handed.
Greater minds than mine can tell you all about the wonderful technical achievements of Pearl – from its eye-popping color palette to its makeup and design choices to the particular ways cinematographer Eliot Rockett brings the time period to life. But what stands out the most for me is the psychological focus that West and Goth (who co-wrote the script) are going for with this magical and colorful dream-turned-nightmare. In X, there is a noteworthy endeavor to garner sympathy for the killer. Pearl does the same to an even more effective degree, as we watch societal pressures and setback after setback continuously push the young woman closer to the edge. This film is many things – a powerful acting showcase, a love letter to the movies themselves, a raucous horror flick – but by its end, Pearl’s story feels far more like a tragedy than anything else.
Pearl pulls from modern day anxieties of isolation, loneliness and existential dread in numerous inspired ways, taking advantage of its late 1910s time period to convey the circular nature of both personal and societal woes and mentalities. It will undoubtedly be rewarding upon repeat watches, and while it thankfully isn’t at all necessary to be familiar with X beforehand, the two films (soon to be three!) play off each other profoundly. Pearl is a seemingly simple horror film that reveals itself to be richly textured both on and below the surface. It’s wondrous, funny, bloody, heartbreaking, and far more honest and smarter than most will ever give it credit for.
‘Pearl’ is now playing in theaters.