Review: ‘Pearl’ (2022), starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland and Emma Jenkins-Purro

September 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mia Goth in “Pearl” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

“Pearl” (2022)

Directed by Ti West

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1918, the horror film “Pearl” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mentally ill young woman, who’s desperate to become a famous entertainer and move away from her family’s rural farm, will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. 

Culture Audience: “Pearl” (which is a prequel to the 2022 horror movie “X”) will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “X,” filmmaker Ti West, star Mia Goth and slasher movies that are just as effective in showing psychological horror.

Mia Goth and Tandi Wright in “Pearl” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

In this prequel to director Ti West’s 2022 horror flick “X,” Mia Goth shows why she is one of the all-time great actresses in horror movies. Her disturbing performance as the title character in “Pearl” is a master class in horror excellence. Viewers don’t need to see “X” before seeing “Pearl” (both movies were directed by West), but seeing “X” before seeing “Pearl” gives much better context to “Pearl” in foreshadowing what’s to come for this unhinged serial killer.

“Pearl” was filmed immediately after “X” was filmed. The two movies were released six months apart, which is unusual for a prequel movie. The main location for “Pearl” and “X” is an isolated Texas farm in an unnamed rural town. (“Pearl” and “X” were both actually filmed in New Zealand.”) It’s at this farm where a lot of murder and mayhem take place. “X” was written by West, whereas West and Goth co-wrote “Pearl.”

In “X,” the year is 1979, and a group of six people from a big city in Texas have gone to the farm to make a porn movie called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The movie’s producer rented the farm. The owners of the farm are an elderly couple named Pearl (played by Goth) and Howard (played by Stephen Ure), who is nicknamed Howie. Pearl and Howard don’t know until after the fact that their farm is being used to film a porn movie. And when Pearl and Howard find out, all hell breaks loose.

The actress who plays the title role in “The Farmer’s Daughter” is Maxine Minx (also played by Goth), an ambitious performer in her 20s who thinks that this porn movie will make her a big star. Pearl becomes fixated on Maxine, who reminds Pearl of how Pearl used to be when Pearl was a young woman who dreamed of becoming a famous entertainer, with a specialty in dancing. Pearl ends up being a voyeur who spies on Maxine, and this voyeurism triggers a deadly rage in Pearl.

The movie “Pearl” is this character’s origin story that shows she’s been mentally ill long before she encountered this unlucky group of pornographers. In “Pearl,” the year is 1918. Pearl (who an only child) is in her late teens and living on the same farm with her parents. The name of the property is Powder Keg Farms, which is a nod to something that happens in “X.”

Pearl is married to Howard (played by Alistair Sewell), but he is a military man who’s away because he’s serving in World War I. She appears to be sweet, innocent and a hopeless romantic. She keeps Howard’s love letters to her as if they are her greatest treasures. However, Pearl’s seemingly harmless exterior masks someone who is capable of a great deal of harm.

The infleunza pandemic is plaguing the United States, so people wear face masks in public. (It’s a chilling parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which “Pearl” and “X” were filmed and released.) Pearl’s one goal in life is to become a movie star, especially in musicals. She frequently goes to the local movie theater to watch her beloved films, such as “Palace Follies,” which she has seen multiple times.

Pearl finds her home life very stifling and will do anything to get away from the farm and follow her dreams. There’s a scene where Pearl is alone and prays out loud: “Please, Lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever known, so I can get far away from this place.” Pearl’s strict and religious mother Ruth (played by Tandi Wright), who is a German immigrant, frequently berates and punishes Pearl if Ruth thinks Pearl did anything wrong. Ruth thinks being an entertainer is a sinful lifestyle, and she expects Pearl to live on the farm for the rest of Pearl’s life.

There are some scenes that show how cruel Ruth can be. One of these scenes takes place during a family dinner at the dining table. Pearl admits that she had some candy on the way back from the movie theater. Ruth gets angry and takes away Pearl’s dinner before Pearl can finish and says that Pearl gave up her right to the meal because Pearl spent money on candy. Pearl says she’s “starving” and pleads with Ruth to let her finish the dinner, but Ruth remains unmoved.

Pearl’s father (played by Matthew Sunderland), who does not have a name in the movie, is catatonic for unnamed health reasons. He is usually seen in a wheelchair, as he watches the love/hate turmoil between Pearl and Ruth, with sadness and fear in his eyes. It’s never made clear if his muteness is voluntary or involuntary.

At various times, Pearl and Ruth express resentment over having to take care of him. Ruth shows signs of mental distress too, when later in the movie, she unleashes a rage-filled rant at Pearl about how much Ruth hates being a caretaker for her husband, and Ruth thinks that Pearl is not doing enough to help. Ruth also knows that something is very wrong with Pearl, when she shouts at Pearl during an argument: “You are not well, Pearl! Something is festering inside of you!”

“Pearl” is the type of horror movie that takes its time to build to the actual horror, because the movie is a psychological portrait of Pearl’s mental illness. Pearl is seen talking to the farm animals, who are the only audience she’s had to practice her dance moves and act out her fantasies of being a famous actress. Out in the farm’s field, she dances with a scarecrow. And then, she starts kissing the scarecrow passionately and simulating sex with the scarecrow as her personal sex doll.

The farm is located near a swamp that has an alligator, which Pearl thinks of as a pet. An early scene in the movie shows Pearl killing a goose on the farm and feeding the goose to the alligator. There’s also an alligator in the same swamp in “X,” which does exactly what you think a horror movie does when there’s an alligator in a swamp. At one point in “Pearl,” it looks like Pearl is going to push her father into the swamp, where the father would surely be eaten by the alligator. Will Pearl commit this murder?

Two things change the trajectory of Pearl’s life in a short period of time. First, she meets the local movie theater’s projectionist (played by David Corenswet), who is a bachelor in his late 20s. The movie’s credits only list this character’s name as The Projectionist, but at one point in the movie, Pearl calls him Johnny. Whatever his name is, there is an immediate attraction between him and Pearl when they first meet.

He’s smooth talker who flirts with Pearl when she’s outside of the theater after she’s seen “Palace Follies” once again. He tells Pearl that she’s welcome to see a movie for free anytime when the theater is closed, and he’s there to operate the film projector. One night, after Pearl has another conflict with Ruth, she rides her bike to the theater and takes him up on his offer.

The other turning point in Pearl’s life happens when Howard’s perky younger sister Misty (played by Emma Jenkins-Purro) stops by the farm to visit and tells Pearl that there will be dancer auditions held in the near future at the local church. Misty will be going to the auditions and suggests that Pearl audition too. Pearl sees this opportunity as her chance to get in the big leagues of the entertainment industry. Pearl is determined to go to the auditions, knowing full well that her mother Ruth would disapprove.

“Pearl” has several nods to “X,” such as the audition scene where Pearl goes on the audition stage, and there’s a big “X” to literally mark her spot. When she meets up with her new projectionist acquaintance, he shows her a softcore porn movie and predicts that this type of adult movie will eventually be legal in the United States. He also mentions that he wants to make these types of movies, and that Pearl would be a big star if she did these types of movies too.

He suggests that Pearl move to Europe, because he says entertainers in Europe have more freedom to express their sexuality. All he will say about his background is that he’s a bohemian who lives a nomadic existence. Pearl is intrigued and awestruck by him and takes his advice to heart.

Viewers who are expecting a typical slasher flick, where the first murder happens within the first 15 minutes of the movie, might be disappointed at how slow-paced “Pearl” seems to be in the first third of the movie. The middle of the movie picks up the pace. And by the last third of “Pearl,” there are several tension-filled, gruesome moments that culminate in scene that’s a cinematic knockout.

Goth has two major standout moments in the film that don’t involve show any bloody murders: In one scene, she delivers a long monologue that is a window into her troubled and twisted soul. And the final scene and the closing credits in “Pearl” will be talked about by horror fans for years.

What also makes “Pearl” so notable as a prequel is that it doesn’t try to copy “X” or confuse people who haven’t seen “X.” (And people who see “Pearl” without seeing “X” first will be curious to see “X” after watching Pearl.”) “Pearl” is a true stand-alone film that has an entirely different look and tone from “X”—quite an achievement, considering all most all the crew members were the same for both films.

The cinematography by Eliot Rockett in “X” was dark and gritty, inspired by the bleakness of many 1970s horror movies. Tyler Bates’ musical score also reflected the angst of a freewheeling 1970s American society on the verge of the 1980s, a decade that ushered in a cultural explosion of financial greed and political conservatism. As stated in the production notes for “Pearl,” West and Rockett were inspired by Technicolor films for “Pearl.” Bates’ musical score is sweeping, lush and romantic—all meant to reflect the elaborate fantasies in Pearl’s mind.

Pearl’s fantasies don’t always match up with reality. That is her personal horror, which manifests itself in the rampage that takes place in the movie. People who saw “X” already know what happened to Pearl as an elderly woman. However, Maxine Minx’s story continues in the sequel “Maxxxine,” which is due out sometime in 2023. West and Goth have a great partnership in this movie saga. It’s a partnership that has resulted in horror movies that are instant classics.

A24 will release “Pearl” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

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