No movie is unnecessary if the filmmaker has a story to tell, but more than any other type of film, it’s prequels that make the strongest argument against that conviction. There’s a challenge to creating something with a life of its own despite viewers being ahead of the characters. And it’s a challenge that Ti West can’t quite meet with his new prequel to the bloody good X. That film tells the story of a group of “independent” filmmakers who run afoul of an elderly couple prone to purity-fueled murder, and Pearl takes us back six decades to show the origin of their madness. A stellar performance by Mia Goth aside, though, this Pearl is devoid of luster and surprisingly dull.
It’s 1918, and Pearl (Goth) is a young woman living with her parents while her new husband fights overseas. She’s living a miserable existence working the farm while her father (Matthew Sunderland) lay dying and mother (Tandi Wright) cracks the whip, but she sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Pearl’s dream is to be a dancer in the movies, and the encouragement of her friend (Emma Jenkins-Purro) and a projectionist (David Corenswet) leads her to audition for a local stage show. Add in a toss in the hay with the projectionist (and a literal scarecrow), and everything’s coming up Pearl… until it all goes to hell.
The character of Pearl in X — also played by Goth, but in distracting old-age makeup — is a woman off her proverbial rocker. She’s disturbed by the brazenness of the young people on her farm, but she’s also insanely jealous of their youth and vitality. While ostensibly an origin story, Pearl begins with the character already a bit loose in the head. She may not have murdered anyone yet, but as her mother reminds her, she’s already prone to violence. Pearl eventually gives viewers those first kills, but rather than be the tragic turn West is clearly aiming for, it’s instead an obvious slog from points A to B.
The central issue with the film comes down to that lack of life, surprise, and energy. There’s no revelation here in the script co-written by West and Goth, no reason to see Pearl as a victim pushed toward madness — she’s a psychopath from the start just waiting for the final nudge towards homicide. The result is a film that’s less of a journey or origin story and more of a character supplement better suited as an extra feature on the X dvd. There’s no real arc here, barely a story, as Pearl simply tips into the swirling madness we always knew she was destined for. Imagine a prequel to Psycho focused on Norman Bates being berated by Mother until he snaps. That’s it.
What saves Pearl from being recommended as a powerful sleep aid, though, is Goth’s performance. She gives Pearl a heightened simplicity, a frustrated Dorothy desperate for a tornado and a brightly colored future, and it’s an engaging take. Still, none of it prepares viewers for two later highlights as Goth’s face fills the frame, first with a monologue that sees her finally realize her station in life, and second with an astonishingly powerful presence throughout the end credits. Timothée Chalamet and the MCU can suck it, Goth is the new queen of forcing audiences to stay glued to their seats as the credits roll. She forces pathos onto a character who doesn’t earn empathy on the page, and it’s fairly breathtaking.
The supporting players aren’t given much to do beyond play out stock roles with a similar lack of nuance or depth. Pearl’s mother is cruel, and her friend is kind with little else of note about them. Corenswet’s projectionist manages to break ever so slightly out of his stock character, but West’s interests rest solely with Pearl’s minor shift from clearly disturbed to literally deranged. Thankfully, Goth is up to the challenge as a performer even as she stumbles some with her screenwriting debut.
While X sees West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett capture the vibe and feel of 70s horror, their Pearl collaboration is a bit less memorable on the visual front. Still, the film looks good and is supplemented further by strong production design highlighting the dryness of a world that’s not black & white but feels monochrome all the same. Goth’s Pearl is constantly at odds with that static reality, and while never as literal as the likes of Pleasantville, it’s her forceful presence brightens the hues and brings the red (via her cheeks, her lips, and the blood she spills).
Pearl ultimately feels more akin to a character study than a genre effort, and while that’s not a negative on its face it’s an odd misstep with a film aligned with the lively, character-rich world of X. It’s been revealed that West is making this a trilogy with Maxxxine due early next year, an 80s-set film following Goth’s other character from the first film, and it seems likely that it will be a return to form for both the filmmaker and the genre. Here’s hoping!