Pearl (2022)

Rating: B+

Dir: Ti West
Star: Mia Goth, Tandi Wright, David Corenswet, Emma Jenkins-Purro

I wasn’t all that impressed with X. It was okay. Seemed like a generic slasher film with art-house pretensions: mutton dressed as lamb. But at the end, I wrote “I wonder if focusing on Pearl rather than the film-makers might have been more effective? It feels like there‚Äôs an interesting story to be told there.” It seems West thought so too, and here we are, telling the back-story of how Pearl (Goth) came to be the unhinged, geriatric psycho she was in X. Turns out the answer to that lies all the way back in 1918, towards the end of the Great War, when a lethal pandemic was sweeping the world (the parallels are noted, yet aren’t pushed).

Rural America at this time is certainly a novel, perhaps even unique, setting for a horror movie, and this freshness is what separates it from the recycled tropes of X. Pearl is a young woman, trapped on the farm belonging to her crippled father and harsh mother (Wright). While she’s married, her husband is fighting over in Europe. Pearl harbours – pun not intended, for once – dreams of Hollywood stardom, and only her lack of talent, experience and opportunity could possibly stop her from achieving her goal. Yet she’s clearly troubled, as an early incident with a duck and a pitchfork (!) proves. A romantic dalliance with a cinema projectionist (Corenswet) and a looming audition at the local church only screw Pearl up worse, setting the wheels of tragedy in motion. 

As well as the setting, Goth’s performance elevates this to several cuts above the usual. There’s no tension, in the sense we know exactly where this is going. It’s all about the journey, and how Pearl goes from the heroine to the villainess in her own story. Yet is she a true psychopath? Despite the (rather obvious) duckicide, she does seem to know right from wrong, acknowledging to her pal Mitzi (Jenkins-Purro) that she has done, “Terrible, awful, murderous things.” It’s complex though, since Pearl is as much an exploited victim herself; it feels as if almost everyone wants to manipulate her for their own purposes. [Fun fact: the stag film the projectionist shows her is A Free Ride, genuinely made around 1915, and the oldest known American porn movie]

Another fresh element is how Pearl is about as far from the typical horror movie killer as you can imagine. Goth (and yes, that is her real name) weighs maybe 120 lbs, so only about 0.5 Kane Hodders. It’s perhaps this which causes people to think she’s a literal pushover, only to find she is very highly focused on her life goals. The final piece of the puzzle is probably better pacing: X was very heavily back-loaded in terms of the horror content, which only showed up after a lot of faffing around. This has a more even approach, although at times it feels like West is a repressed musical director. That’s better than the repressed porn director we got in X though, and I’m looking forward to MaXXXine, the final part of the trilogy.