“Pearl” is a technicolor dream, a breathtaking ode to cinema, and a warning about the pursuit of fame and its trappings; pure movie magic.
It would have been enough to say that director Ti West and actress Mia Goth had a dynamite 2022 with the release of X.
Arriving as something resembling a comeback for West, who had been largely absent from the feature-length horror scene, X was a skin-crawling trek into the brittle Texas countryside. It was a grubby nod of the pitchfork to the regional cinema, a homage to Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and his 1976 follow-up, Eaten Alive, and a steamy salute to the “adults only” cinema that filled the gasping drive-ins and crumbling grindhouses of the era.
Had it been left at X, West confidently reaffirmed he still had it, and Goth’s dual-role performance further solidified her place as a fearlessly versatile genre queen.
Miraculously, 2022 awarded us a second offering from the West/Goth duo, a bonus surprise in a year that was already brimming with hit after hit. Enter Fall’s Pearl, the Technicolor prequel that did a swan dive into the tragic backstory of X’s crusty, down-on-the-farm killer.
Rejecting the slasher mold that formed X in favor of venomous psychological stings, Pearl was a puncturing character study that simultaneously captured the paranoia of the modern world around us and traced the history of exploitation cinema back to its early roots.
Set in 1918, Pearl ushers us into an America reeling from the Great Influenza pandemic and World War I.
The title character has been helping out on her parent’s farm while her husband, Howard (played by Alistair Sewell), serves a tour of duty overseas. Her paralyzed father has been reduced to a wheelchair and robbed of his ability to care for himself. At the same time, her domineering mother belittles and shelters the simple Pearl at nearly every turn.
Away from the watchful eye of her mother, Pearl dreams of being a star in the pictures. She takes advantage of trips into town to stop by the local theater, where she immerses herself in whatever film is being shown that day. She also happens to befriend the local projectionist (played by David Corenswet), a friendship that soon blossoms into something far beyond a friend.
Aspirations of fame aside, Pearl is also suffering from severe mental illness, which begins to manifest in increasingly disturbing ways.
Much like X skillfully captured that greasy sensation of ‘70s exploitation cinema, Pearl nimbly dances through an era of cinematic decadence.
This was a time when the mere sight of chorus girls dancing for a static camera was capable of instilling a starry-eyed wonder in the patrons filling the springy seats of the ornate movie palaces.
On the flip side, it pulls the rock from the soil to reveal the filthy underbelly, the growing curiosity in underground cinema in the form of “stag films,” which our vivacious protagonist/antagonist is exposed to in the form of 1915’s (the year of release/production has been a topic of debate) A Free Ride, which is reported to be one of the earliest pornographic pictures in existence.
Where X found a collective of amateur filmmakers attempting to dig their dirt-caked nails into the heaving back of the triple-X market, Pearl ventures into its hushed backroom origins.
In one of the wildest publicity stunts of recent memory, A24 created a website that allowed of-age genre fans to access a treasure trove of early “stag films,” which reinforced West’s desire to explore a side of cinema that arose (LOL) outside the watchful eye of squeaky-clean Hollywood studio offerings. It was bold, refreshing, and wonderfully feisty, and totally encapsulated the spirit of the growing X franchise.
But PEARL’s brilliance lies far beyond an edgy publicity stunt. No, it lies squarely on the slender shoulders of Goth, who gives perhaps the best performance of 2022.
She outright owns the screen, and it’s clear that everyone involved with the production is acutely aware of this.
We witness a piece of performance art that flexes the muscle of a talent that has been quietly demanding her time in the Technicolor sun.
From the first frame of the film, Goth vanishes into her role, taking a big ol’ toothy bite out of a gosh-golly innocence that is increasingly threatened to be ripped violently down into the murky depths of a soul inhabited by a hungry monster growing more and more insatiable as it stews in its swamp.
She flits from being delicately adorable, in a country bumpkin kind of way, to tearing your heart to shreds with black marble eyes that burn with a white-hot volcanic rage that — when it finally erupts — engulfs her entire world in a blistering blaze of fury.
Goth’s crowning moment arrives during Pearl’s final stretch, where she spouts a static, minutes-long monologue so gut-wrenchingly terrifying as it snowballs from pitiful to point-blank disturbing, made even more potent because we’ve seen the god-awful extremes that she will go to in order to preserve her delusions of grandeur.
West morphs her from a Texas Dorothy in search of her shimmering emerald Oz into a sobbing Wicked Witch of the West so removed from reality she doesn’t even realize the full extent of the carnage her desires for fame have ignited.
Outside of Goth’s radiant bubble, Pearl holds a glowing, blood-stained vanity up to modern-day America.
These days, unlimited access to social media has (yellow brick) paved the way for a generation eager to skip towards being an overnight iPhone sensation. It’s led to hellish attempts at becoming (in)famous, with deranged specimens resorting to all sorts of awful and debasing means necessary to nab a plaque in the halls of infamy.
Our gal Pearl will resort to murder, and so will the detached individuals craving a stage to dance like Pearl amongst the bombs of war and the falling masks of a pandemic to announce themselves a star on the trumpets of blazing semi-automatic rifles.
It’s a sad, sorry state, especially when married to the trajectory of exploitation cinema.
It was born during a threesome tryst through the countryside, glimpsed in silence during the after-hours behind locked doors of beautiful movie palaces.
Those once glorious grindhouses that allowed the morbid amongst us to voyeuristically glimpse the ferociously nasty mondo-violent and triple-X curiosities being passed around the underground market, home to confront the taboo, have evolved into what we have lovingly branded as the internet.
Our new grindhouse is the World Wide Web, where we can peep the quivering flesh and the clanking bullets with a furrowed brow and a conveniently placed pause button to grab a refreshing beverage.
Measuring celebrity is now a digital forum of keyboard panelists that make or break your fate, furiously judging you with a pounded-out “NEXT!” on their keyboards or the simple click of a like button.
Shortly into Pearl, her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law arrive at her remote farmhouse with a beautiful pig roast that looks mouth-wateringly delicious, arriving with good intentions and exciting news of a dance audition blowing into the comfy confines of the local church, with the promise of the winner being whisked off to make a name in lights for themselves. Stubbornly, Pearl’s mother refuses to accept the golden meal, seething over the familial gesture of charity.
As Pearl progresses, the pig is left on the grand, wrap-around porch to spoil and be consumed by withering piles of maggots, never allowed to serve its intended purpose of adorning the family’s dinner table to bring joy to the mouths it could feed.
It becomes a symbolic representation of Pearl’s aspirations, which are coldly rejected and left to rot in the unforgiving sun looming over the family farm, a meal untouched and a dream left to be consumed by the less-than-glamours grind of monotonous day-to-day reality, morphing into something utterly repulsive.
Try as many might (and they will) to tap into the ever-shifting realm of celebrity, Pearl is ultimately an ominous warning.
It cautions that the fairy dust daydream for the world’s attention will frequently be met by cold-hearted dismissal (by a domineering mother or a panel of stone-faced talent agents who simply scream like the keyboard trolls, “NEXT!”) that will inevitably gnaw the public’s golden desire for a grand stage all the way down to the ugly gray bones.PEARL reminds us that we have always been bedazzled by the moving pictures that flicker in the dark before our very own windows to the world, but the most chilling part is how we choose to digest that movie magic. Click To Tweet
It can inspire us to dance harmlessly with a scarecrow in a cornfield or unchain our darkest desires and project them back onto a world that has been long robbed of its top-hat-clad innocence.