Well, I liked X.
X was Ti West’s attempt at a 70’s style horror movie that came out earlier this year, mostly starring Mia Goth in a dual role, but also featuring Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, and others. The story of a gathering of young folks out to make a classy porno flick, but finding themselves in a horrific situation, was engaging throughout and had quite a few shock value moments. I, personally, thought some of the directorial choices were a bit purposeless and gimmicky, but I could forgive that. X was entertaining almost from the first minute to the last.
What I didn’t think of when I watched X, however, was “Boy, I sure wish I had some backstory on the old woman character here!”. Well, sometimes you don’t always know what you want, and so Ti West gave us Pearl, the origin story of the titular character, set in her very early adulthood, about 61 years (if I recall correctly) before the events of X.
When I had first heard of Pearl, just about two months ago, I was wary. I mean, X just came out this year! To me, the idea of Pearl felt rushed; like A24 and West just threw together a project as quickly as they could to take advantage of X’s moderate success. I would end up hearing that, no, Pearl was always planned and was filmed right around the same time X was made. So this was not the slapdash effort of which I was afraid. A nice relief!
So, feeling a little better about that, I went into Pearl anticipating… well, maybe not expecting something as good as X, but imagining at least a solid outing at the theater. How did it go?
Well… we’ll get into that in a bit, after I breakdown the story WITH SPOILERS FOR THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS, BETWEEN IMAGES OF THE MOVIE.
X opens in the year 1918, with the United States suffering both from the Spanish Flu and World War I. What you will inescapably notice both immediately and throughout the picture are the “old-timey” touches West brings us. The score is bold and dramatic. The acting choices are in-your-face. The opening credits harken back to an older era of movies. This all feels very Sound Of Music from the word “go”.
The title character is a young girl of a nebulous age (presumably somewhere between 17 and 25? She is married, but living with her parents and being treated very much like a child by her mother) living on the farm we would know from X.
Her mother is a strict German woman. Her father is an invalid after having suffered apparently quite dramatically at the hands of “The Germ” (The Spanish Flu). Pearl and her mother care for her father, but Pearl wants more. She dreams of life as a Hollywood star. She dances and sings before her loyal barnyard audience (a cow and two sheep). And then she casually murders a duck–to remind us that she is nuts–and feeds it to the alligator in the nearby pond (Hey, remember the alligator in X? Remember? Do you remember? There was an alligator in X).
She eventually heads into town to get some medicine for dear old dad, and afterwar she uses her change to see one of them newfangled fancy moving pictures, Palace Follies! After the show, she meets the projectionist of the theater, flirts with him, and then goes home and brings herself to climax atop the family’s scarecrow.
So Pearl sees your disturbing sex scene, X, and attempts to raise you!
Things happen for a while. Or don’t happen. The movie moves slower than the Ozone layer repairing itself. Pearl has some fights with mom. Sleeps with the projectionist. Almost tosses her dad to the gator. The night of that last event, Pearl and mom have another eruption over dinner where mom threatens to slit dad’s throat (this guy was having a VERY ROUGH DAY), then mom accidentally catches fire in a brawl and suffers the “Will Ferrell In Austin Powers” fate: still alive, but very badly burned.
Pearl invites the projectionist over for a roll in the hay because the mayhem has made her horny, but he is pretty immediately creeped out by her dad and the banging sounds in the basement. So Pearl kills him, like you do. Pearl, sensing her true destiny at hand, then finishes off mom and smothers dad (third time unlucky, guy) before heading to a dance rehearsal.
Pearl doesn’t get the role, as it goes to her younger, blonder sister-in-law. This goes as well for the sister-in-law as you imagine, but we get a seemingly endless monologue from Pearl first as the two of them sit together in Pearl’s kitchen. Pearl spent the entire movie wanting to get off the farm, but by this point has resigned herself to life there with her husband when he returns home.
This brings us to, I kid you not, the best part of the movie, as the camera lingers on Pearl’s face as the credits role over them. And Mia Goth is just… THERE, acting the hell out of her facial muscles for several uncomfortable moments as we see who the, like, Best Grip was. It’s wild, and I’m not kidding… it ended up being my favorite part of everything I saw.
I was BEWILDERED upon leaving the theater and looking at the scores for Pearl on Rotten Tomatoes and Letterboxd. This film is pulling in great reviews! And I feel like this is maybe my newest Midsommar, an apparently beloved A24 horror effort which I can’t help but feel I saw a different version of than most of the rest of the world.
X is entertaining from beginning to end, as I mentioned. I’m not sure Pearl is EVER entertaining. Its runtime may be listed as 102 minutes, but it felt like I was sitting there for ten hours. Pearl is flat-out a chore. The kitchen scene I explained in the spoiler section was supposed to be an exercise in building tension, but instead it just dragged on and on; it felt like it was never going to end, and instead of feeling any sense of impending dread or malice, my brain just glossed over and I started zoning out, thinking only of how uncomfortable the squeaky movie theater chair was becoming under my sandbagging buttcheeks.
Prequels suffer a bit as a prequel in that you know where things are ultimately going, and it takes a massive effort to get past that and make a story worthwhile. Nothing about Pearl felt necessary. We know where the character is going, and there are no real surprises on the way there. The whole thing felt like Ti West just giving Mia Goth a chance to carry a picture on her own.
And to her credit, Goth is not any of the problems here. She’s not amazing or anything, but she is quite strong and proves oddly capable of being a leading actress for years to come. She just… look, I’m not sure any performer alive could have Atlas’ed this screenplay onto her shoulders. But she did try her best with what she was given.
I’m not sure if the bigger knock on this film is how laborious it feels to sit through or how unnecessary it was as its own feature film, but boy was it both. Pearl was the most unpleasant cinematic experience I’ve had in years, and having seen 42 movies released so far in 2022? Pearl is comfortably 42nd best for me.