It’s hard to imagine encountering a major movie release as eccentric as Ti West’s Pearl again this year—or any year, for that matter. A prequel to his slasher X, which hit theaters mere months ago, Pearl breaks form and then hacks it to bits. Unlike X, which took place in the ‘70s and attempted to recreate the grittiness of that era’s exploitation cinema, Pearl takes place in 1918 but its references are more temporally varied. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a major influence here, which is never more explicit than in a scene in which titular protagonist Pearl (Mia Goth, who co-wrote the script with West) dances with and ends up riding to orgasm a scarecrow she finds posted in a cornfield. The endlessly emotive and string-led score, as well as the putative investment in Pearl’s interiority, were influenced by the “woman’s film” melodramas that reached the height of their popularity around World War II.
Oh, and Pearl is a murderer with some sort of undiagnosed mental illness.
And another thing: Pearl has an alligator friend named Theda (after the silent movie star Theda Bara) who lives in the pond behind her farmhouse and whom she feeds increasingly larger creatures.
It’s a thrill to behold something so self-possessed, something that manages to be both wholly reminiscent and, in aggregate, truly singular. Certainly, there was nothing about X, a longwinded slasher about the rural filming of a porn flick that fell short of capturing the high stink of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, that could have predicted a prequel as outrageous as Pearl. West’s fealty to pastiche is as apparent as ever, but here it’s in overdrive, a heady blur of cinema history that repeatedly comments on the present.
That’s the idea at least, and while there is a lot to appreciate about Pearl, like X, it takes a lot of time to tell a rather basic story—this one is about a country girl with big-city dreams. Pearl yearns for a life beyond the farm, where she lives with her domineering German mother Ruth (played by Tandi Wright, who did the intimacy coordinating on X) and disabled, nonspeaking father (Matthew Sunderland). She wants to be a star, she announces to the only audience she has, the animals she cares for in their stable: “One day the whole world’s gonna know my name.” She meets a projectionist in the nearby city (the strapping David Corenswet), who shows her early pornography in the form of a stag film and, independently of that, makes her horny. She learns of an upcoming audition for a dance show from her sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) and figures that it’s her ticket out.
Pearl’s first hour sets its antihero up to fall from grace. There’s some kind of twisted sense of compassion here—we’re invited into the mind of a killer to see what makes her tick. This was already established in X, which takes place some 60 years after Pearl. Goth played the villain Pearl (and, in a dual role, porn performer Max Minx) in X. In that movie, she wore piles of ridiculous-looking prosthetics. Pearl literally gets under her skin. But once you see past its high aesthetic charm and endless references, Pearl doesn’t have much going on beneath the surface. Pearl is mentally ill—her mother describes her as “unwell” and Goth plays her with a harried girlishness—and she wants to be famous…and, well, there she is. She has a lot of miserable meals with her parents and some oblique conversations with the projectionist. As with X, slow pacing is no substitute for actual suspense. In fact, it’s inhibitory. Pearl doesn’t snap, as it were, and start her murderous rampage until about an hour into this movie. She treads water, in an admittedly singular pond, for entirely too long.
Liberated from genre conventions as it is, Pearl has less responsibility to be scary. And it is creepy, right down to its way of noting the passage of time: a rotting roast suckling pig on the porch of Pearl’s family’s home that collects more and more maggots as the family structure (and Pearl’s mental state) deteriorates. Pearl delivers a nearly seven-minute monologue during one of the movie’s final scenes that hints at a life beyond what we’re privy to, and I wished the movie could have shown more of what she told.
Time is of the essence here, and West has created such a blur of it as to render anachronism irrelevant. Again and again, Pearl’s issues tether it to the present day. Its characters wear masks in public on account of the Spanish flu. Opiates get a hat tip via Pearl’s father’s morphine prescription. Pearl is utterly ahead of her time in fame-chasing; when she finally gets that audition, she’s told of her fate to her face, and the scene plays out very much like American Idol. Pearl argues, often cleverly, that the past is never dead, nor is it even the past. The scenes with life in them manage to be mighty convincing.