Blending melodrama with horror with impeccable visuals and highly engaging performances, horror filmmaker Ti West’s psychodrama Pearl is the second film in his X trilogy and a prequel or rather origin story to the horror sleeper hit X. It will be followed by a third entry slated for next year titled MaXXXine. The film abandons its Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired story in favor of a more dramatic, hectic, and psychological approach. The film hooks you from beginning to end and capitalizes on its origins. West delivers his successor (or rather predecessor in chronological terms) to X with a slow-burn narrative, accomplished visuals, and a mesmerizing performance by Mia Goth, who channels Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and even Betty Davis while making it her own. While the film is connected to X, the film is destined to receive a more polarizing response from audiences with its irony and genre merging (there is melodrama with horror), and at its core, it is rather more of a character study.
Back in March, A24 released Ti West’s X and it was an instant horror classic in the making. Mia Goth played dual roles as a Maxine Minx, an aspiring porn actress on her way out West with her film crew and fellow cast, and she also played the eerie, murderous elderly Pearl, who was determined to kill off the cast and crew one by one as they rested on their farm property. With Pearl, West brings back the origin story of Pearl, for which he co-wrote the screenplay with Mia Goth. The collaboration between Goth and West is a blessing, and I anticipate more great things to come.
Like in other origin stories, the storyline is a lot of build-ups, but it builds up well, with controlled pacing and a rhythm. The film gets more and more disturbing, and even more emotive as the conclusion becomes inevitable as we learn of the trauma and troubles of Peal. The film’s final 20 minutes include a greatly acted monologue of Pearl, staged in a low-angle 30-degree close-up by West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett, just unleashing her repressed emotions after a failed audition to her friend Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro as Mitzy). Not only some of the greatest acting of the year, but Goth’s performance is comparable to other outstanding performances in the horror genre like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Sissy Spacek in Carrie, Shelley Duvall in 3 Women, and Kathy Bates in Misery, to name just a few. It really is a tour-de-force performance that holds a lot of psychological layers and variations, while the film is rich in atmosphere, style, and, of course, suspense.
Set towards the early days of the Spanish Flu, the influenza outbreak that occurred in 1918, the film welds together two styles. West and Rockett utilize the style of Douglas Sirk with color and decor in Technicolor tones, along with other histrionics and a panoramic score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams that pays homage to the great Douglas Sirk. Imagine watching Sirk’s films as horror films; then you get the drift of what West is achieving here. And there is plenty of melodrama, histrionic confrontations, along with ravishing colors and decor that position Pearl as a transcendent genre piece that defies expectations with its irony and nuance.
The film opens up with Technicolor style credits as well. We are introduced to Pearl, a young woman who lives on her family farm where she does chores, rides around on her bike, and enjoys going to the movies on the silver screen. Pearl also has a very disturbing side as she kills small animal farms and has an encounter with a scarecrow that explores Pearl’s sexual frustrations and repressions, which were also apparent with the elder Pearl in X. She also takes care of her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland), and she visits the alligator in the same swamp that was like a second character in X.
Outside of her sexual anxieties, Pearl holds a lot of uncertainties in the global pandemic-induced world of 1918. She feels lonelier by the day as she patiently waits for her husband, Howard (Alistar Sewell), to return from the war, and she begins to have an epiphany of what her life could be like if she was away from the farm life. Pearl also has a strained relationship with her strict German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright), who insults and discourages Pearl at every opportunity. Pearl ends up discovering her love of acting and show business as the town’s local cinema. She ends up encountering a bohemian projectionist (David Corenwset), a young idealist who shows Pearl an underground silent film, an adult film that he contrabanded from Europe. The projectionist ends up encouraging Pearl to be a free-spirit, and they end up building up a small affair together.
Meanwhile, Misty informs Pearl about the town having local auditions for a traveling dance show that is going to Los Angeles. Pearl begins to think this is a ticket off the farm. The audition scene is one of the most impressive sequences West has ever staged. It’s a dance chirography as we get inside the imagination of Pearl doing a lovely musical number that holds fantasy with reality. The conclusion certainly recalls Sunset Blvd and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Goth gets the opportunity to showcase her inner Betty Davis and Gloria Swanson.
This is what stands Pearl apart from other horror films: its strength in character depth. West and Goth together unravel fascinating glimpses and insights of Pearl’s disturbed mind as we see her world collapse from her broken dreams and anxieties. The film doesn’t rely on senseless gore and lazy jump scares to sustain its unnerving impact. The script creates a genuine tension between Pearl’s inner and outer wants, and when Pearl gets pushed over the edge, it doesn’t feel schematic but rather earned due to its effective build-up and unsettling characterizations.
As in X and West’s earlier films like The House of The Devil, and The Innkeepers, Pearl is very polished in visual detail—it features some of the most vibrant colors of any of his films, and the film offers some very grotesque and haunting imagery as well. Ultimately, the film really is an acting showcase for Mia Goth though. She has never been so wrenching with her skillful acting. She is able to pull off a performance that is filled with camp, creepiness, and vulnerability. Her character holds many layers and is never a caricature that is one-dimensional. It really is a brilliant performance that deserves some serious recognition, despite horror films rarely ever being considered in acting categories.
As Pearl’s psychological breakdown worsens and her madness and sadness intensify, you remain engrossed in her plight because West and Goth make you care for this character. West and Goth’s combined psychoanalysis of Pearl allows the continuation of X to exceed expectations. Whatever happens with the trilogy’s conclusion remains uncertain at this point, but X was impressive, and Pearl is even more entrancing to watch.