Pearl (2022) Review
Director: Ti West
Screenwriter: Ti West, Mia Goth
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistar Sewell
In Ti West’s 2022 slasher film X, during the final confrontation between Maxine and Pearl, both played by Mai Goth, Pearl taunts the young Maxine saying, “You’re gonna end up just like me.” Maxine, for all her arrogance and naivete, refuses to believe this. “I’m nothing like you,” she spits back before screaming, “I’m a fucking star!”
While Maxine’s ultimate fate has yet to be decided (the sequel to X, MaXXXine, still in production) one thing is certain: Mia Goth is a fucking star, made all the more clear by her dazzlingly unhinged performance in Pearl, the origin story of X’s main antagonist.
Pearl takes place in 1918. WWI is coming to an end as the influenza pandemic rages on. Pearl lives on her family’s farm, tending to her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) under the watchful eye of her strict, overbearing mother (Tandi Wright), as she waits for her husband Howard (Alistar Sewell) to return from overseas. Pearl dreams of a life in the pictures – a life of glamour and fame and adventure. But Pearl also has a dark side, and it isn’t long before her murderous impulses come bubbling to the surface.
Mia Goth is having the time of her life in this movie. Her enthusiam for the role is clear, both from her performance and her collaboration with West on the script, and she carries the film on her back effortlessly. Giving Goth the room to shine is the film’s biggest advantage and it’s so much fun to see her character Pearl slowly unravel. Goth does a great job setting Pearl apart from Maxine, while still maintaining their connection: a ravenous desire for fame and fortune. Where Maxine is brazen and in control of her sexuality, Pearl is quiet and repressed, her rage slowly simmering over the course of the film, building to one hell of a monologue. Throughout Pearl, Goth screams and cries, her eyes wild, but she never feels like she’s doing too much. Her outbursts are perfectly balanced with her more reserved moments. Juxtaposing Pearl’s early Disney princess vibes with her increasing affection for murder and mayhem only adds to the camp.
Tandi Wright also gives a strong performance as Ruth, Pearl’s mother. She goes toe to toe with Goth in several scenes, each fighting for dominance. We have to be scared of Ruth for their dynamic to work, and Wright certainly gives it her all.
Pearl is much more visually dynamic than its predecessor, taking inspiration from silent films, vaudeville, and golden age classics from the 1930s and 40s. The colors are vibrant – the birds sing. Even the horror is drenched in technicolor red. Pearl’s visual language is so striking and distinct because it has a specific point of view. It’s a direct reflection of Pearl’s inner voice and how she sees the world. The film’s opening is that of a Disney movie with sweeping camera movements, a soaring score, and Pearl telling her animal friends all about her hopes and dreams. You’re half-expecting her to break out into her “I Want” song (and honestly it’s disappointing when she doesn’t.)
With Pearl, Ti West was clearly inspired by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The isolation and paranoia is palpable. The sight of the town’s people wearing masks is uncomfortable and scary because it’s so familiar. Pearl is both a snapshot of Texas in 1918 and a reflection of our present troubles, and while it is not directly about the pandemic, the very idea of it permeates each scene.
While most of the sets – notably the farmhouse and the lake – are seen in X, Pearl breathes new life into them. We get to see the farmhouse before the rot and decay, before Pearl’s life spirals out of control. You don’t have to watch X to watch Pearl and vice versa, but the two films are in conversation with each other, drawing parallels between Maxine and Pearl. There are subtle visual references that will be missed without having seen X (and Pearl’s line about not liking blonds will certainly not be as funny without seeing Pearl).
Where X is tonally dissonant at times, Pearl is pitch-perfect. It’s a glorious blend of blood and guts and chorus girls. It’s a horror movie with flare, eliciting just as many laughs as horrified gasps. Pearl manages to be both of its time and timeless, an age-old tale of the pursuit of fame, dashed dreams, and woman’s rage.