It opens with the same tracking shot as X; only the image is noticeably different. The greens are greener. The blues are bluer. The house is in better shape. It’s all very idyllic.
That’s because X, the exploitation/slasher flick from director Ti West, was set in the grainy, earth-toned 1970s. Pearl, X’s prequel, takes the story back to 1918, during the war to end all wars and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett gives Pearl that three-strip Technicolor lushness. Technically, 1918 is a tad early for color—tinted black and white film would be more period appropriate—but West and Rockett are up to more than just inflection.
That’s clear from the moment you meet Pearl (Mia Goth). Decked in blue overalls and with her hair up, she cuts a figure similar to Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale à la Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was another farm girl dreaming of a land she heard of once in a lullaby. For Pearl, that’s the picture show. She wants to be a dancer, but only her cow Charlie and her sheep Mary know it. Mother (Tandi Wright) is a stern woman who still speaks German around the house, and Father (Matthew Sunderland) is an invalid due to the ravages of the pandemic. If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why can’t Pearl?
Well, because Dorothy only slays one while Pearl is racking up tallies. Released only six months ago, X finds Pearl in her twilight days with more kills than you can count on one hand. In X—filmed simultaneously with Pearl—Goth plays Maxine, an adult actress in a fly-by-night porno production. The team has weaseled their way into a rundown farm in rural Texas, where the elderly owners, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Goth again, in not entirely convincing old age make-up), discover the shenanigans and start knocking the kids off one by one. In one of X’s more shocking moments, a character runs into the farmhouse cellar to hide, only to find another victim, one not connected to the porno shoot, locked up and left for dead. When it comes to killing, this is not Pearl’s first rodeo.
Hence the premise of Pearl, the prequel that fills in the holes of how Pearl’s Dorothy Gale grew up and became the Wicked Witch of West Texas. Loneliness is the prime culprit. Howard is fighting in the trenches of Europe, and Pearl is stuck slopping hogs. Her anger seethes as Mother needles her, and rage bubbles up as desire takes hold. Pearl wants out, wants sex, and wants to be somebody, and a traveling troupe auditioning dancers might be her answer. Or maybe it’s the handsome Bohemian projectionist (David Corenswet) at the movie theater. He could take her to France, where all her dreams would come true. Or he could take her to a brothel and pimp her out to paying customers. West frames both as equal possibilities but never shows his hand.
Desire, sexual liberation, and repression flow through both X and Pearl, though it feels more nuanced here. Pearl is more character study than slasher flick—though there is a lot of blood. More Leave Her to Heaven less Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I like the flip: it makes Pearl a little more uneven than X. X feels a little too clever; a little too amused with its premise. Pearl hands the ball over to Goth, who co-wrote the screenplay with West, and lets her go nuts.
Goth’s performance is outstanding. In one scene, her confession holds the frame for minutes on end without a cut. In another, she invokes the classic boogieman: the type that stalks while the victim runs, yet the victim never seems to gain any ground. And Goth can also go for hysterics better than most, making a snot- and spit-laced outburst simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. What a performance. What a movie.
Directed by Ti West
Written by Mia Goth, Ti West
Produced by Jacob Jaffke, Harrison Kreiss, Kevin Turen, Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell, Matthew Sunderland, Tandi Wright
A24, Rated R, Running time 102 minutes, Opens Sept. 16, 2022.