Director: Ti West
Stars: Mia Goth, Tandi Wright, David Corenswet
Of all the recent horror hits (or even near misses), Ti West’s sticky, syrupy, strangely sex-negative porno-shoot slasher X seems among the least likely to require franchising out, but that hasn’t stopped the filmmaker and his young star Mia Goth from extrapolating outward at an impressive pace. While a sequel charting Maxine’s exploits in the golden age of video is presently in the works, West and Goth made short work of this character-study prequel, which flings the narrative back to 1918 to investigate the ‘origins’ of X‘s principal antagonist Pearl.
Goth also played Pearl in X – caked in aging make-up to make her appear elderly and shriveled. Here, of course, no such prosthesis is required. Pearl finds her fresh faced and plucky, albeit living in her own little world down on the farm while her hubby, Howard (Alistair Sewell), is off fighting in The Great War. Though her stout-hearted Russian mother (Tandi Wright) is mostly disapproving of her, Pearl finds escapism at the local picturehouse, where silent dance routines spin her away into a world of Hollywood dreams. Here she is noticed by the suave yet unnamed Projectionist (David Corenswet); a self-labelled bohemian who sees star potential in Pearl… among other things.
Calling this an ‘origin story’ is a tad misleading, as we’ll discover young Pearl is already quite far down the road off her rocker. Before the wonderfully throwback opening titles are done she’s skewered a hapless goose to feed to the alligators that chomped so snappily during X. Her potential as a casual murderess is primed from the off. Later, on returning from the nearby cinema, Pearl indulges in a whirlwind fantasy of romance and lust with a scarecrow; a sequence that reaches out toward the future of cinema – and The Wizard of Oz no less – but which reconfigures Dorothy’s motivations into something base and desirous.
Goth is credited as co-writer of Pearl with West, and the effort she has put into the character is evident. This isn’t a traditionally shaped horror flick. It is far less conventional than it’s saucier sibling. Rather, this is a peek into the dissatisfaction and disquiet of rural America a century ago that also happens to careen off into bloody serial killer shenanigans. With Pearl, West and Goth use the trappings of genre to accentuate a malaise already festering. Blood letting is the punctuation that turns Pearl’s quiet sentences into capital letter shouts, shouts still silenced by the tall-standing cornfields that enclose her existence.
The full, rich score provided by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams (one of the year’s best) is redolent of an equidistant era between Pearl and X – that of the ’50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Pearl feels strangely kindred to the likes of All That Heaven Allows in how it studies a particularly feminine brand of societal constraint that is commonly unseen or ignored by those closest to it. Though often fixed with a rictus smile, Pearl is desperately sad, and appears to have corralled all of her hopes and dreams on getting discovered by a passing talent contest that’s happened through town. The sense of inevitable disaster is palpable.
While Pearl doesn’t end in a mass reckoning of violence ala Brian De Palma’s Carrie (Goth’s character has no powers but echoes the young Miss White in a number of ways), it surprises with something more simple, honest and affecting. Rejected and dejected, Pearl unburdens herself in an imagined epistle to her absentee husband. Goth tumbles through it in one. Fixated by his lead, West (also editor) doesn’t cut away once. It’s one of the most mesmeric pieces of performance of the year.
West’s efforts to link Pearl thematically with our current circumstances feel a little less successfully sketched. Positioning the film in the late 1910s, he is able to fold in the sweeping influenza of the time period, mirroring our present-day mask-wearing in the townspeople surrounding Pearl. Fears of contagion press at the peripheries. Recognisable paranoias indeed, but their service to the overall narrative here is less obvious. The film’s striking final moments – and the strained, sustained shot that lingers as the credits crawl – are no doubt effective, but they beg further questions as to what happened in the intervening decades between Pearl and X. It leaves a suspicious sense that there’s more work to be done.
Maybe that wouldn’t phase this team, who evidently feel a creative fervor around the world they’ve created. After MaXXXine, who knows what West or Goth will do, or whether this is a viable franchise for further instalments, added to the timeline as and when it takes them (or, in our current climate of endless shows, why not a TV series?). So long as they can spin episodes that are rich and nuanced, I’d be inclined to follow their lead.
Pearl is a strange one. It still feels unnecessary but – in a large part thanks to Goth – also decidedly superior to the story that spawned it. Wicked, weird and wonderful, this is creative and garish genre filmmaking that seems to be taking place in the midst of a veritable renaissance. And this effort sits pleasingly outside of classification even as it supposedly adheres to a staple of the modern era; the obligatory and gratuitous spin-off.
If only they were all as happily unhinged as this one.