There are a lot of shocking moments strewn throughout Pearl. But maybe the most shocking thing about it, in a larger sense, is that it actually turned out to be better than the movie it sprang from.
During a mandatory quarantine in New Zealand prior to shooting X, Ti West and star Mia Goth fleshed out an origin story for Pearl, the murderous elderly woman in that movie played by a prosthetically aged-up Goth. Improbably, the outlines of those discussions became the script for Pearl. Shot in secret immediately following the filming of X, the prequel looks and sounds like no other horror movie you’ll see this year and features a jaw-dropping performance from Goth, whose psychotic grin will be burned into the back of audiences’ minds for a long time to come.
The movie is set in 1918, and West’s presentation feels appropriate to the setting, with rich imagery harkening back to the age of Technicolor and a woodwind-forward orchestral score that makes the film feel like a lost relic someone found in a dusty canister tucked away in the back of an abandoned movie palace. But what’s really cool is that the quaint countryside locales and sweeping score serve as a startling counterpoint to the bloody carnage that ensues as we get to know Pearl.
With her husband off fighting in World War I, and the needs of her domineering mother (Tandi Wright) and paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland) taking up her every waking moment, Pearl is feeling trapped. She’s desperate to leave the family farm and live a life of stardom that includes traveling the country as a professional dancer. But her mother (in a thick German accent) strictly forbids her from doing just about anything. Fortuitously though, Pearl meets a handsome young film projectionist (David Corenswet) in town and the two make a quick connection. The lad can’t see that there’s something sinister about our curious, wild-eyed heroine—but rest assured that some dark malady is festering deep down inside.
As its title and poster might suggest, Pearl is a character piece, period piece, and horror movie all in one, and it’s all pulled together by Goth’s spellbinding performance. She was rock-solid in X as both Maxine and an older Pearl, but what she does in this movie is simply on another level. You just can’t look away from this girl. Her eyes, her hands, her gait… every little thing she does steers the story. And boy, does the story go to some disturbing places.
Much like Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, exploring Pearl’s psyche is as, if not more, satisfying than watching her kill her victims. The “why” is as important as the “how,” and her journey from kill to kill makes sense as her inner demons are slowly revealed. The movie isn’t necessarily terrifying in the way X was, because we’re with Pearl the entire time. She’s not suddenly appearing in doorways or lurking behind barn doors here. On top of that, most of the kills happen in broad daylight. But the suspense exists in the fact that we learn just how dangerous she can be before (most of) her victims do. It’s a psychological dread, and it’s handled brilliantly by West and his team.
Pearl’s private moments, like her bloody encounter with a goose and her, uh, run-in with a scarecrow aren’t only entertaining in the most unsettling way, they offer unforgettable glimpses into her mind that tie the story together perfectly. You see her final kill coming from a mile away, but watching her do the awful things that we know she’s capable of doing isn’t any less frightening. In fact, it makes it scarier. The more we understand her, the more terrifying she becomes.
If there’s anything somewhat disappointing about Pearl it’s that it doesn’t really enhance one’s viewing of X or vice versa. They’re completely different movies stylistically, which is good. But watching Pearl’s origin story only makes her part in X feel like an inessential add-on. Pearl is terrific, terrifying, and overflowing with nightmare fuel, which is really saying something when considering how ravishing it looks and sounds. With the third film in the series, MaXXXine, just announced by A24, it’ll be interesting to see if West and company can top what they’ve done with Pearl. It’ll be one hell of an accomplishment if they do.
Pearl is playing in limited release now.