Reviewed by William Bibbiani
Ti West’s Pearl (2022) is an oddity amongst horror sequels and prequels. The fact of its existence is not the remarkable part. What’s actually extraordinary is that Pearl is more than just a fantastic prequel: it successfully illuminates and recontextualizes its predecessor, dramatically improving a film that was already acclaimed to begin with. Pearl is a prequel to West’s retro slasher X, which takes place in the 1970s and follows a group of independent filmmakers who rent a cabin on a farm from an elderly couple. Their mission is clandestine, to secretly film a pornographic movie starring Maxine Minx (Mia Goth, Emma) under the farmers’ noses. But when they’re not having spirited debates about sex-positivity, they’re getting murdered one-by-one by Pearl (also played by Goth), an old woman who longs for her sexual prime.
While distinctively stylish and relatively smart, it’s hard to watch X by itself without getting the impression that, as much as West’s film believes in sexual liberation, it also expects its audience to be grossed out by the basic concept of elderly people as sexual beings. There’s a smattering of thematic hypocrisy that West did a disappointingly superficial job of exploring in the first movie.
Pearl takes place in 1918, at the tail end of World War I and during the deadly flu pandemic which killed more than 615,000 people in the United States alone. So folks are staying at home, frightened of interacting with others and wearing masks to protect themselves from infection. (What a coincidence!)
Mia Goth again plays Pearl, a young woman whose husband is serving overseas and who is stuck staying with her overbearing mother Ruth (Tandi Wright, Love and Monsters) and her immobilized, ailing father (Matthew Sunderland, The Nightingale). Pearl dreams, like so many young girls on farms in movies, of leaving her isolated and unremarkable life. She thinks she could be a dancer and aspires to audition for a musical church revue that could take her out of her oppressive familial prison and into the great big world of show business.
In Pearl, West and Goth (who also co-wrote the screenplay) are drawing a rather uncomfortable parallel between the romanticized repression we so often find in Hollywood melodramas and the gradual activation of a serial killer. It’s a connection that permeates every scene and shot, and to excellent effect. X cinematographer Eliot Rockett’s overwhelmingly colorful and lush cinematography gives the nightmarish violence of Pearl an attractively Technicolor aesthetic. Pearl is to 1950’s Douglas Sirk what X was to 1970’s porn.
West and Goth aren’t merely clarifying Pearl’s motivations; they’re critiquing an entertainment industry that sells sex under the guise of wholesomeness. The dancing films Pearl watches at the local theater are little more than an excuse to show some leg, and as she gets to know the handsome and flirtatious projectionist (David Corenswet, Look Both Ways), he introduces her to the underground world of early pornography, stripping away the façade of mainstream morality altogether.
Goth plays Pearl with, at first, an astounding amount of restraint. She’s trying, genuinely trying, to be the person her mother wants her to be. The person her husband wants her to be. The person the movies want her to be. But in a gloriously performed centerpiece, an argument with her mother escalates into an event that cannot be undone, leaving Pearl with only one option: to commit wholeheartedly to her career in show business, and also to commit to lots and lots and lots of murders.
Pearl is a genuinely frightening motion picture, and while West is undeniably staging the action, Goth is the one working the greatest wonders. Her portrayal is unbearably sad and breathtakingly scary, often at the very same time, culminating in one of the year’s great one-take horror monologues (Andrew Semans’ Resurrection has the other) and at least one other shot that will stick with you while the credits roll, probably beyond.
The film would be fabulous in a vacuum, but watched in conjunction with X — where we see how Pearl ended up after 50 years — it adds poignancy to the overall saga. Pearl’s dreams of leaving the farm were, clearly, permanently ruined by her murderous compulsions and her need to remain in isolation. And the parallels between Maxine’s ambitions and sexual liberation, and Pearl’s own failed journey, make X work on more thoughtful and tragic levels than it did all on its own.
The sexuality that seemed desperate to evoke immature screams of grossed-out terror in X come across less like mere misguided ageism now, and more like the natural culmination of a long life spent perpetually craving physical pleasure, morally or immorally, never ceasing, right until the end. (Maybe if Pearl had come out first, X wouldn’t have felt quite so thematically disjointed and ageist in the first place, but it’s too late for that now.)
Pearl isn’t just great; it retroactively makes its predecessor great, too. It’s a handsome and sad horror drama, with scenes and shots and performances that will make you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh, cry or shriek. Until you realize that the best part of this film is that you are absolutely supposed to do all three. And you probably will.