A prequel that should’ve been left on the shelf.
Pearl hits theaters on Sept. 16, 2022.
Set 60 years before X, Ti West’s Pearl — a.k.a. Pearl: The X-traordinary Origin Story — lacks the former’s focus and panache. It goes back to the early years of Mia Goth’s bloodthirsty wannabe starlet, a role that affords the English actress yet another challenge. In X, she played both rising porn star Maxine as well as the aged, decrepit Pearl in a tale of lust, gaze, jealousy, and fleeting youth, unfurling at the volatile nexus between sex and violence in the American psyche. Pearl, its prequel, steers clear of this territory despite also trading in similar filmic nostalgia; it very rarely knows what it wants to say, aesthetically or thematically. Its meandering plot, therefore, never fully coalesces, and never fully allows Goth to weave together the disparate elements of her character. It has a few frills, but not nearly enough thrills or chills to live up to its predecessor.
Filmed back-to-back with X during the COVID pandemic (both were shot in New Zealand in 2020, at a time when the virus hadn’t yet run rampant there), Pearl re-uses X’s Texan farmhouse setting, painting, and papering over its rotting walls with vibrant colors. The year is 1918. The first Great War is coming to a close, and the Spanish Flu is just beginning. Pearl’s husband, Howard, is still overseas, leaving her to care for her mute, infirm father (Matthew Sunderland) while tending to the family barn. The young milkmaid has dreams of dancing in the movies, despite the insistence of her overbearing German immigrant mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), that she stay home and help with the farm. What begins as a straightforward tale of a small-town girl hoping to escape to Hollywood very quickly takes a turn as the seemingly naïve Pearl stabs her goose to death with a pitchfork in order to feed the alligator in the lake behind her house. Even though she talks to all her farm animals as if they were human beings (she dances for her goats and cows; they’re her audience), she has no trouble shedding blood, whether for amusement or mere convenience. This penchant for destruction eventually spreads to include the people standing in her way.
The outward dynamic between Pearl’s sheltered appearance and her desire to rebel through violence is the story’s core, made all the more intriguing by Goth’s performance as a wide-eyed country girl whose broad affectations harbor a dark streak. It’s a dichotomy that, in some ways, feels built into the film’s aesthetic fabric; it opens with the whir of a projector blended with the trilling of insects, drawing a direct line between Pearl’s surroundings and where she hopes to end up. The opening shot peers through barn doors (much as it did in X), pushing forward to capture the entire landscape and widen the frame — a promise on the horizon. However, where X spoke the more specific visual language of ’70s horror and porn, Pearl is more vague, nebulous, and anachronistic with its verbiage. Its colors pop like early Technicolor spectacles of the ’30s and ’40s; its sprawling title design is drawn from a similar time, as are its orchestral strings (by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams), even though it’s set in the silent era. This doesn’t feel like a mistake, per se — West opts for a similar anachronism when Pearl sneaks off to the movies and watches a dance number with a pre-recorded song — but in collapsing cinematic history this way, the film loses sight of what it hopes to say about images, sex, and stardom. It may as well have been set in any other decade.
In X, sex and violence were so closely entwined that, for the aged Pearl, they were essentially one and the same. The prequel seems to decouple this notion — Pearl befriends the theater’s smoldering projectionist (David Corenswet), who shows her an illicit porno he imported from Europe — but rather than exploring how these worlds eventually would meet in Pearl’s psyche, the movie’s approach to sexuality feels disconnected from everything else, not to mention sanded down. It features a particularly steamy send-up of The Wizard of Oz (another anachronism), but unlike in the more exacting X, this film’s use of feminine gaze and female libido feel like mere window dressing, rather than explorations of taboo — like they were preordained points Pearl needed to hit in order to feel like a proper prequel.
Goth, who ends up saddled with quite a shouty performance — it’s neither measured enough to be engrossing, nor campy enough to be fun — is at least afforded the chance to wrestle with Pearl’s violent impulses on occasion, creating a version of the character that’s as sympathetic as the one in X. She’s most enrapturing when she’s quiet, and when she ruminates on the way she’s seen. She is sometimes captured in long, static takes, placing this idea of self-image directly in the camera’s crosshairs; these shots become the film’s de-facto highlight, but in the process, little else truly lands when the camera either moves or focuses on anyone else. Wright is the one exception, as the domineering matriarch whose life didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped (Pearl’s biggest fear), and whose melancholic fury threatens to swallow not just Pearl, but the entire screen, when her daughter threatens to audition for a traveling dance troupe. But too often, the film opts for a straightforward presentation of its more discomforting and violent ideas. Like X, it builds tension on occasion, and holds it well during its fake-outs, but rarely pays it off in explosive fashion. This adds up after a while. Let the audience down enough times, and tension soon begins to feel like a false promise.
Even on its own merits, divorced from the previous film, Pearl is mostly a bloodless homage to too many different things — and yet, to not nearly enough things that feel thoughtfully considered. Notions of jealousy rear their head when Howard’s lively, attractive sister Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) enters the fray and auditions alongside Pearl, but rare are the moments when Pearl’s warped perspective either consumes the frame, or takes precedence over its calculated cinematic throwbacks.
For all its faults, at least X felt fresh and energetic. Pearl, on the other hand, isn’t so much X-traordinary as it is X-hausting.