Though it doesn’t hit the same highs as X, Pearl is still a fitting prequel that solidly explores the origins of Mia Goth’s deranged, repressed slasher killer.
It’s hard to believe that in the same year, Ti West has two films premiering at two different festivals. This past March, his old-school slasher horror flick X premiered at South by Southwest, and now he’s surprising us with a prequel to that film, Pearl, which delves into the backstory of the elderly villain of X, Pearl herself. Set in the year 1918, Mia Goth plays a young Pearl in the days of a frightening pandemic (the Spanish Flu) and a tragic war in Europe (World War I)… my, how times have changed today. She lives on her family’s isolated farm, tending to her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) with her strict, demanding mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), but she dreams of becoming a famous dancer on the fabulous silver screen. She discovers she may have the chance to do so when auditions roll into town, but when these ambitions clash with her mother’s wishes, she’s pushed past her breaking point and reveals the vicious, murderous monster lurking within her.
The best way I could describe X is Texas Chainsaw Massacre fully realized. I really enjoyed that film, and I especially liked Pearl as a villain with understandable, unique motivations revolving around sexual frustration and generational jealousy. Naturally, the question then arises: what did she go through in her generation to become the psychopath we know her as? Pearl answers that question in an entertaining way, though not with as many big surprises as I would have liked. Mia Goth predictably dominates the film. You instantly buy her as a young Pearl with her looming insanity, but this time it comes with the veil of a charming, wide-eyed dreamer who’s understandably frustrated with her place in life. Pearl was, as you came to realize in X, greatly repressed in her youth, even within the confines of her own marriage to her husband Howard. Here, we see that she’s already married to Howard (Alistair Sewell), but he’s overseas serving in the war. This means she’s already suffering from sexual frustrations in the prime of her life, forced to unleash them in one of the film’s more demented scenes. This isn’t even including the more heavily oppressive suppressions that come from both her religious upbringing and this time period in general, which also play a big part in establishing her rage and sadness.
But the basis of her insanity turns out to go much further than that. She’s held back in pretty much every other aspect as well, primarily because of her mother. She’s heavily discouraged from pursuing her dreams and appallingly guilt-tripped by Ruth for even thinking about leaving her family behind to fend for themselves. But we discover that Ruth herself was forced to make her own sacrifices and give up her happiness, which is very similar to the life we know Pearl goes down and continues the themes of generational trauma that X contained. Pearl is a victim of her role in society as much as she is someone who’s shown to already be a little crazy before going completely off the deep end… or maybe her entire repressed life is what planted those seeds of madness in the first place? It would make plenty of sense, given her mother’s borderline cruelty towards her.
I was really impressed with how much Pearl made it visually feel like we were in the 1910s. Though it could have immersed us even further by going some extra mile, like being in black-and-white or using a more classic aspect ratio, it still succeeds thanks to its vibrant lighting and color palette that ooze an old-school technicolor vibe. Everyone’s dialogue and performances also match that more traditional style, while still feeling like we’re in the same universe as X. As for the kills, they’re… fine. I honestly wouldn’t consider Pearl a horror film, more a thriller. X definitely saved its violence for the third act, but it was constantly brutal and creative once it got going. Pearl only has a few small, standard slasher scenes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but anyone going in should know that the gore isn’t a selling point this time.
Pearl also isn’t quite as much of a deep-dive into Pearl’s hardships as I’d have liked. At least, not in a way that can be felt throughout the majority of the film. Towards the end, we get a several-minute-long shot of Pearl expressing her disdain for her husband’s actions and for herself (where Goth truly excels), revealing just how deeply she’s been affected by her upbringing and how many layers there are to her motivations. But while this definitely lets you look back on her actions with more intrigue, I would have liked those feelings of hers to have come across more strongly while watching those actions. Especially since, as I alluded to earlier, she already had demented tendencies well before the events of this film. They do come across to some extent, but a lot of the beats can be a little repetitive, and we’re not given a slow, gradual descent into madness. Her transition into the full-blown killer we know her as is rather abrupt, even if we understand why she’s doing it.
But while I wasn’t blown away by Pearl, I still had a good time and got pretty much what I wanted from it: a deeper understanding of one of the most interesting new horror villains. It’s not some wild and crazy experience or one of the all-time great character studies, but it’s certainly insightful enough to get you thinking and uncomfortable enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. You don’t need to have seen X to appreciate the ins and outs of Pearl. If you’re a fan of X, you’ll probably like Pearl unless you’re really put off by how minimal the slasher elements are. I don’t anticipate a ton of enthusiasm from too many people, but I believe most people will come out satisfied.
Pearl premiered at TIFF on September 12, 2022, and will be released in US theaters on September 16. Read our list of films to watch at TIFF 2022.