SPOILER ALERT: This column contains potential spoilers about new film “Pearl.”
Before there was “X,” there was “Pearl.” Or rather, before there was “Pearl,” there was “X.”
The surprise prequel to Ti West’s hit retro slasher was announced during the end credits of “X.” West wrote the prequel while filming “X” and immediately began production once he wrapped shooting on the first film.
Stylistically, “Pearl” is incredibly different from its predecessor. Where “X” drew inspiration from early American independent cinema and 1970s slasher films, “Pearl” is an ode to Classical Hollywood and 1950s melodramas. The film’s vibrant color palette and whimsical visuals are reminiscent of the fantasy world seen in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”
But “Pearl” is definitely not a walk along the Yellow Brick Road. The film isn’t nearly as grimy and suspenseful as its predecessor, but the terror is very, very real.
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“Pearl” is the origin story of the murderous elderly woman who wreaked havoc on an adult film crew at her Texas farmhouse. It takes place in 1918 when Pearl, played by Mia Goth, was a young woman. She wants nothing more than to escape her family and be a dancer in the pictures. The film traces her descent into madness and murder as she strives to become the biggest star the world has ever seen.
“It has to be me,” Pearl repeats to herself outside of a dance audition in her small Texas town.
Since we already know she becomes a monster, Pearl is a ticking time bomb. She becomes more unhinged as more obstacles get in her way, whether that’s her German immigrant mother who despises Pearl’s selfishness or the obligation to care for her disabled father.
When a charming film projectionist promises Pearl a life she can’t say no to, she goes fully off the rails. Her true demented self begins to shine through in a series of feverish daydreams and dance sequences. Pearl’s grip on reality slips as she loses herself in the quest for stardom.
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The film has a hazy, nightmarish quality to it that wasn’t present in “X.” Pearl’s gruesome rampage wouldn’t be as terrifying if she wasn’t so unaware of the true horror of her actions.
Goth gives an incredibly haunting performance as Pearl. Her complete commitment to the role is awe-inspiring, especially considering she co-wrote and produced the film with West. She isn’t afraid to make bold acting choices, all of which pay off. Her natural sweetness and sincerity conflict with Pearl’s terrifying behavior, which makes the character all the more interesting to watch. It’s no surprise people are comparing Goth to Shelley Duval and Sissy Spacek.
In the third act, she delivers an unbroken 6-minute monologue that solidifies her performance as one of the best of the year. Centering such a flashy film’s climax around this grounded speech was a bold choice, but it brought much needed depth to the character.
Overall, “Pearl” is an expertly crafted fever dream of a film; its visceral violence, melodramatic score and offbeat tone will pull you in from the very first frame.
The final film in West and Goth’s “X” franchise, “MaXXXine,” can’t come soon enough.