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X and Pearl

From a celebration of authenticity to a heartbreaking portrayal of pain and loneliness, “X” and “Pearl” make an extraordinary double feature.

X

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In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to celebrate two films featuring powerful female leads that deeply impacted me: Ti West’s X and Pearl.

X (2022) came first, though it takes place in a later timeline of 1979. It follows a journey from Houston, Texas, to farmlands with a team of aspiring pornstars & co.

Wayne (Martin Henderson) heads up the project with RJ (Owen Campbell) at the camera helm and his girlfriend, quiet Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), helping with sound. Jackson (Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi), Maxine (Wayne’s girlfriend, played by Mia Goth), and Bobbi Lynne (Brittany Snow) are the stars. They stay at the farm of harmless old folks, Pearl (Mia Goth in a dual role) and Howard (Stephen Ure), secretly filming their porno, or so they think.

These people are neither harmless nor unaware of what they’re doing, as we see Pearl, the creeper granny, watching Maxine perform in the barn. Lorraine decides that she wants to be a part of the endeavor, to the horror of RJ, and soon after, people begin dying at Pearl and Howard’s hands.

Pearl lusts after Maxine, who looks remarkably like she did at the same age. She begins picking off the cast and crew one by one until she gets to the one she really wants. She and Howard have done this before, as we see with the chained dead man in the basement.

Something I loved about X was that the women lived how they wanted to without societal values restraining them. They were free.

X is a siren song to freedom, at least to me, from the constraints of society’s expectations; it’s as Maxine says, “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.”

When I saw X, I was constrained similarly to 1918 Pearl, whose backstory is explored in Pearl (2022), though I didn’t understand that yet. X pushed me forward when I was afraid to put myself and my writing into the world, stuck in a job I hated where I spent most of my time. Eventually, I decided I’d had enough. Within two days, I had a new, better job that was more suited to me.

Between Maxine and Bobbi Lynne’s American dream of a paid-for house and a pool, I feel like both of these women have qualities that feel deeply relatable.

Pearl is the prequel to X, exploring how Pearl became the way she is.

Pearl is a gorgeous, technicolor daydream of a lonely, unloved girl who desperately wants to be loved by the entire world.

Pearl is a young woman who knows something is deeply wrong with her. First, she enjoys murder — first, killing animals and then graduating to the people who reject her in some way. The first person she ever kills is her mother, who lacks fundamental love for her daughter. She drives Pearl to become hard. Though she probably means well, she never gives Pearl a place of safety that feels like home.

Pearl’s father is wheelchair-bound, unable to move or speak. Pearl often shoulders the burden of keeping him alive after he contracts influenza.

This pandemic in 1918 is simply a reflection of our world today: COVID paired with the attention-starved people vying to be online stars without any real talent, just the hard wish.

This is the story of a girl who feels much too deeply, whether that be the abandonment of her husband or the rejection of her mother. She notices that people draw away from her when they understand who she really is inside. Pearl may be a sociopath. Yet, it seems to be a reaction to gain control over the well inside her, bubbling up, taking her over the edge of a harsh existence, and telling her she isn’t good or lovable enough.

Pearl is living through her own isolation during a pandemic and is trapped by the ties that bind her to other people. Her desires are pushed aside until she indulges them for a handsome projectionist who ultimately rejects her, leading her to kill him.

It hurts when you try your hardest and are told you aren’t good enough. Do you know what happens to a dream that is deferred? It rots, and then it becomes poison inside us. Sadly, Pearl didn’t have the strength to dust herself off and try again. The rejection broke her and turned her into a monster.

I didn’t fully understand my own agony until I saw it in another woman onscreen: the unfairness, the abandonment, the destructive rage of waiting for your life to begin.

I can understand all of Pearl’s reasoning (aside from the murder). She is a woman who needs help at a time in history when she especially can’t get it. (Also, Mia Goth definitely deserved an Oscar for her heartbreaking monologue toward the end of the film.)

In Howard, her madness is allowed to flourish because when he comes home and sees her dead parents propped up on display, it is clear he simply cleaned up her mess and continued to love her despite the sociopathy. Howard even descends into her level of crazy by helping trap people to fulfill her sexual desires once he cannot by 1979.

Pearl explains this as an old woman in X: “There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me back then: that’s the power of beauty.”

She explains her beauty as a form of manipulation, which makes Pearl desirous of Maxine’s youth. To me, it’s not beauty but love that can be a form of manipulative madness; it sweeps us up and causes us to do insane things.

I married a man I couldn’t truly be with, and it did not work out in the end, even though I loved him madly. Pearl took sharp things, then went stab-wild, and Howard didn’t have her arrested. He protected her instead.

Pearl is a young woman I’m sad for, but I wept on the way home for the girl I was. I wept for anyone who feels unloved by the world and for anyone who loses a loved one, no matter how hard they try to hold on. I wept for the people whose dreams are unrealized, unnoticed, and pushed aside.

Maybe it was poking fun at the pandemic-induced wannabe stars obsessed with themselves, but the point of the film felt like it was to round out Pearl so that we might evaluate her as something other than a horny granny with murder in her veins.

These villainous characters, crazy as they are, are people first and foremost — and sometimes it really sucks to be a human being. Circumstances can twist people into something they shouldn’t have ever become.

I’m psyched for MaXXXine coming this July and for the possibility of a fourth movie in the franchise from Ti West, whose talent for bringing past time periods onto our modern screens shines throughout this amazing series.

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