dir: Ti West
I had mostly been either ill-informed or indifferent to the works of Ti West, up until this year, this fateful year in which a little flick called X came out. From my perspective, it was only a couple of months ago that I was stunned by that flick, made by Americans on a tiny budget in New Zealand during the covid lockdowns.
I was blown away, and thought that was a keen horror flick that was also saying something else, something more, something funnier than I was expecting.
When it was announced that West was making it all into a trilogy, like most movie fans, my heart sank, because I was sure it meant 1 good film and two mediocre retreads, like most film trilogies, but also subsequent films that would make me like the 1st flick even less.
I should not have been so foolish: Pearl is the perfect companion piece to X. I don’t know that anyone left the very enjoyable X saying “I really would love to watch a prequel sent in 1918 about the early days of the crazy old woman who kills bunches of people because she ain’t getting any”, but that’s what we’ve blessed with.
Mia Goth played dual roles in X as both the young Maxine and the wizened and murderous Pearl. Here she’s only playing a young Pearl, but she’s playing her with a full range of emotions and hopes and dreams, and at the amped up level that only youth and sociopathic rage can summon.
The entire performance is at 11. This amp goes to 11. Even in her quiet moments Pearl is suffused with a passion that’s at odds with the world around her. She is, after all, just a simple country Texan girl, living on the farm with her completely paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland) and a stern and dictatorial German mother (Tandi Wright), dreaming of leaving home and becoming some kind of star on the recently invented silver screen.
The nearby town does have a playhouse that plays movies even. Moving pictures, the kinds with women dancing in cancan lines, it’s enough to give a girl hopes and dreams.
Of course Pearl is not a kid: she’s actually married to Howard, who’s gone off to fight in the war, hopefully on the German side. And she’s trapped on this farm because she has no money, and she doesn’t seem that well educated, and plus whatever her mother says goes, because her word is law.
Until it isn’t anymore. If X had a theme it was that someone being forced to stifle their desires long term, both sexual and otherwise, would result in literal heartbreak for others. If Pearl has a theme it’s that Pearl’s desire to be loved, desire to be a star, will not be repressed. She just wants it too badly.
Even though cinema has barely existed for very long, this one mule town has a cinema, and a projectionist (David Corenswet), and somehow plays movies with sound before such a thing has been invented yet. The kind of movie Pearl loves has girls dancing, like in Palace Follies.
The kinds of flicks the projectionist likes are like A Little Trip, which looks like one of the oldest existing pornos. He plays it for Pearl, but it’s not as interesting to her as it is to him.
Still, it does somehow result in Pearl having very passionate sex with a scarecrow, which isn’t even close to being the film’s most disturbing scene. There are a few nods towards Wizard of Oz, with Pearl as a kind of demented Dorothy longing to get as far away from home as possible. Because, like Dorothy, she ends up trying to live through a fantasy, only to be constantly let down by the people around her.
From Pearl’s perspective it is the world’s fault that she isn’t getting her way. She wants to live the life she feels she deserves, but the world keeps disagreeing.
The world, and her mother. Such a harsh, unsupportive mother, who continuously forces Pearl to do chores, bathe her father and tries to squash every moment of fleeting joy that Pearl might feel.
Sure she’s an ogre, but she, like Pearl, had hopes and dreams before life broke her down and squeezed the capacity for happiness out of her. Pearl doesn’t need to hear all that, she’s got her own desires to fulfill, and she’s going to try damn hard.
On some level we are almost invited to mock Pearl’s single minded devotion to her own stardom – she’s not a million miles from some of the performers that end up on reality / competition shows only so the audiences can unite in laughing at them for their ambitions, which completely outstrip their abilities.
It’s not the ones they bring on like Susan Boyle, who they know are talented but don’t “look” right, to surprise and delight audiences – it’s the ones who don’t know how mediocre they are, but believe in themselves anyway.
You know, like most of us.
Pearl, after a few murders, gets her moment to shine on stage, but it’s all for naught, because she doesn’t fit the All American blonde haired blue eyed paradigm that “they” want to promote for their dancing troupe.
In the end, the very end, she only has one actual helpful friend in this world, and it’s the alligator she calls Theda who eats up the victims of Pearl’s wrath. And she has ever so much wrath to go around.
Look, I loved Pearl, and I find the character and the performance fascinating. Mia Goth, other than having a great name for either an actor, a singer, a painter, a wrestler or an author gets to shine forcefully in this performance. It felt like a lived in, deeply felt performance, and she gives some great scenes that truly stand out as incredible performances, that people won’t credit or even remember because this is a horror film.
The most famous scene (as opposed to infamous) in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris involves Marlon Brando’s character monologuing in a room with his wife’s corpse. The scene is renowned because it’s everything Brando was feted for.
He starts calm, transitions to cold, dismissive, to angry, to enraged, to tormented and beyond until he’s screaming out how much he loves her as he desperately hugs her body and sobs.
I loathe that film, but that scene is famous for a good reason. The scene in this film occurs towards the end, and it has a completely different set of details, but it’s a monologue Pearl delivers to what we imagine is a completely astounded sister-in-law called Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), with a similar escalation, and it’s just a good, if not better than the earlier flick. The emotional transitions she undertakes along the way are spine-tingling.
Yes, I’m saying Pearl is better than Last Tango in Paris. Way better. No comparison.
Shot as it was during the lockdowns, it’s funny seeing people wearing oldie timey masks (to avoid the rampant so-called Spanish flu of the time) when they go about their daily business in crowd scenes, but whose purpose it was to obscure the fact that cast and crew were conforming with covid protocols at the time. Handy, that.
The cinematography, with that Technicolor sheen in certain scenes, and the joyfully goofy score to match Pearl’s fairy tale dream of stardom all work a treat, and are a powerful contrast to the darkness and corruption at the homestead.
And that very last shot, of Pearl’s face, that goes for ages into the credits, as she exhibits simultaneously every emotion the human face can exhibit one after the other for microseconds at a time? Perfection.
I thought that X was a triumph, and I think Pearl is just as much of a triumph but for completely different reasons.
Easily one of my favourite flicks of the year.
Pearl. It’s just safer and easier if you just do what she says.
9 times murder shouldn’t be the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems out of 10
“It's not about what I want anymore, Mitsy. It's about making the best of what I have.” – I support your German Protestant work ethic - Pearl