Directed by: Ti West
Distributed by: A24
Written by Patrick Hao
After six years of not making a feature film, Ti West has already released his second feature film of 2022. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, shortly after West and his crew wrapped on “X,” he decided to keep the production going on the prequel. The writing credits for “Pearl” are attributed to both West and his heroine and muse, Mia Goth, and “Pearl” presents an interesting twist to the first film.
On its surface, both films are interested in the idea of stardom and exploitation. “X” uses the “Golden Age of Porn” as the catalyst to explore these themes – equating exploitation to violence, or at least the audiences equal fascination in watching violence and sex. “Pearl” takes a slightly different approach. While it is set in the late 1910s, during WWI and the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the film takes its aesthetic cues from “The Wizard of Oz” and technicolor. Judy Garland, both as an icon in pop culture and as a symbol of Hollywood’s exploitation of its young stars, seems to be the film’s major touchstone. Goth’s Pearl, a small-town farm girl with a naive lilt in her voice, is drawing on the Garland charm. It’s no wonder that one particular scene involves a provocative act on a scarecrow.
As a whole, the film is an extension of the “X” universe. “Pearl” takes place at that same farmhouse in Texas. Pearl is living with her German immigrant parents while her husband is serving across the seas in WWI. Her domineering mother, Ruth (see the biblical reference there), played by Tandi Wright, consistently imbues Pearl with a sense of obligation to family and to god. This is exacerbated by Pearl’s infirmed father (Matthew Sunderland), whom both women have to take care of. Maybe due to the oppressive nature of her home, Pearl longs for a sense of escape from her provincial life, dreaming of becoming a star, while her sexual appetite grows. This manifests itself in fits of violence, usually toward animals.
When Pearl finds herself at the movie house in town, she is fascinated by the majesty of the fantasy world before her. That and meeting the handsome projectionist (David Corenswet), who is able to fulfill her desires by showing her an illicit stag film, which propels Pearl to rebel against everyone who stands in the way of her dreams in an extreme and violent way. This film is less of a horror film than “X,” which followed a traditional slasher plot. “Pearl” is closer to a combination of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Henry: the Portrait of Serial Killer,” in the way that we as audience members are always in the point of view of Pearl. Almost forced to be empathetic toward her, no matter how deranged her mental psyche becomes.
Buoyed by Mia Goth’s performance, whose innate strangeness is matched only by her beauty. Her contributions to the film cannot be overstated, both on screen and behind the scenes. It is through her central performance, that any form of empathetic attachment is created, even if there is a looming sense of dread of inevitable violence. In a way, it makes sense that the film is set during the Spanish Influenza pandemic. People are going about their day despite the fact that death is at the door.
If anything holds the film back, it is the absence of sincerity in the filmmaking. Much more than “X,” this film feels overcome by affect. The period design, the broad melodramatic acting, and the mix of tones never quite come together as a coherent whole for West and the crew. There is no such thing as purposeful camp. Yet, Goth’s performance is quite affecting, especially as the final images of the credits forcefully burn themselves into the mind of the viewer.
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