Synopsis: Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl’s ambitions, temptations, and repressions collide in the stunning, technicolor-inspired origin story of X’s iconic villain.
Stars: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro
Director: Ti West
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: With social media being so prevalent and movies screening far in advance, it can be hard to keep a surprise under wraps for long in the movie business. If you don’t want information spoiled for something as simple as a TV show, you need to stop using your social media or race to watch it before no-goodniks can reveal the secrets. No one has much respect for spoilers anymore, even if you ask nicely. (So, you’re welcome for 10+ years of non-spoiler reviews!)
**DISCLAIMER: It’s impossible to talk about Pearl without revealing key plot points about X, released earlier this year. If you prefer not to know anything about that movie, read no further. Everyone else, let’s go!**
I tend to stay for all the credits at the end of a movie (hey, the one time I skipped it was for Don’t Look Up, and I regretted it!) because you never know if there will be any additional footage of note. When the credits were nearly over for Ti West’s gonzo horror film X, I began to trek out of the theater along with the handful of remaining audience members. As the screen went black, it seemed the movie was over. Then, suddenly, a preview for Pearl appeared. Wait, what? Yes, Pearl, the wicked old killer granny from the film we watched, was getting her origin story in just a few months. West had pulled off a rare feat in Hollywood, shooting two movies back-to-back when most thought only one was coming.
To hear West tell it (like I did at a recent Q & A), coming out of the pandemic and realizing his time filming X in New Zealand might be his only chance to film for some time, he figured why not use the resources already there and create two movies while on location. Devising inspiration from star Mia Goth, West collaborated with her on the screenplay for a prequel set in 1918 that would tell the story of Pearl’s early years on the farm. Greenlit before they even filmed X allowed West (The Innkeepers) and Goth (Suspiria) to let that movie inform what they’d do on Pearl, and it shows in this new movie, a horror film that goes deeper and darker into a twisted mind.
An origin story is maybe the wrong term to use for Pearl. Call it a snapshot of a turning point in her life when Pearl moved from one stage to another. A war bride living on a Texas farm with her German immigrant mother and invalid father, Pearl dreams of a life bigger than baling hay and milking cows. Looking down on her hard-working mother, who scoffs at her daughter’s dreams of fame, the two women are constantly at odds. Even more than doubting her child, Ruth (Tandi Wright, Jack the Giant Slayer) sees a darkness that frightens her. We see it too, understanding that Pearl isn’t a figure that is turned sour; she probably always was inclined toward murderous impulses that cause her to lash out.
A local dance competition gives hope of an opportunity to get out of town and tour, something Pearl sees as the start of her suitable career. Going to the movies in town (which happens to be in a panic about the Spanish “pandemic,” hence why everyone is wearing face masks), she meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to go after what she wants without letting anyone stand in her way. He also shows her a ‘European’ film showing an act that is “legal to do, but not legal to shoot.” (One of several gentle nods to X.) Pearl falls for the Projectionist despite being married, but it’s not without repercussions. Tensions at the home rise to a boiling point and quickly escalate, sending Pearl on a familiar rampage.
Like X, Pearl takes its time building each character, letting them come into clear focus before allowing any of the nasty stuff to happen to them. I’d say Pearl waits even longer, which keeps it all the more of an intriguing film. It’s ultimately more of a study of the downward spiral of dreams and the way a demented mind chooses to deal with this loss. You don’t want to root for Pearl, but, in a way, you do because you’ve had those same types of disappointments. The difference is we don’t take a pitchfork to the person that didn’t live up to our expectations. The violence and make-up effects in the movie will satiate the horror hounds in the audience (and they are indeed spectacular), but the performances will resonate and frighten the most.
You can see why West has focused on Goth as such an inspiration. A fierce commitment from the English actress compels you to keep watching. She doesn’t quite fit into the period like you think she would (maybe that’s the point?), yet you can’t imagine any other person playing the role. In X, she handled the double duty of playing Maxine and the older Pearl like a champ, even fooling me for much of the movie. Here, she’s only got one role but is featured in every scene. It’s all told from her perspective, so we experience it with her. There’s a sequence near the end (confirmed by Goth as her favorite in the film) where she and actress Emma Jenkins-Purro share a conversation at a dinner table that’s as mesmerizing to watch as any haughty awards-y drama you’ll see this year. Goth gives a one-take monologue for upwards of six minutes that’s jaw-dropping. If only the Oscars had the cojones to nominate a performance like this, you’d know they take every genre seriously.
I also thought Wright, as Pearl’s emotionally withholding mother, was brilliantly executed. At first, you think she’s just a typical parent that can’t let their kids have their own lives, but Wright reveals in bits and pieces why she’s built up this wall between her and her daughter. It’s a challenging portrait to paint, but it is nicely done. Kudos to Jenkins-Purro for sharing the film’s most crucial scene with Goth, holding her own, and then staying out of her way when Goth must go big.
Not that this is a secret, seeing that it has been all over the news, but a third film has already been announced (but not filmed), and if you stick around to the end of Pearl, you can see the teaser. MaXXXine is set in 1985’s Los Angeles, and if it continues this winning streak of West/Goth, I can’t wait to see what horrors they find in Hollywood. Until then, while you don’t need to see X to enjoy Pearl, I’d make it a double feature and catch both 2022 entries for major fun.