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.

Review: ‘X’ (2022), starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi

March 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“X” (2022)

Directed by Ti West

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1979, the horror film “X” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with one Latina and two African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six people go to a rented farm to make a porn movie, but the elderly spouses who own the farm show their violent disapproval. 

Culture Audience: “X” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Ti West and horror flicks that skillfully blend horror with satirical comedy.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Owen Campbell, Brittany Snow, Mia Goth, Scott Mescudi and Jenna Ortega in “X” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

“X” is a horror film that doesn’t break any new ground, but this “slow burn” movie delivers some gruesome terror with touches of social satire that can bring some laughs. Written and directed by horror master Ti West, “X” is sure to count as one of his best movies. Will “X” be considered an iconic movie that influences countless other horror films? No. However, “X” takes a simple concept that other slasher movies mishandle and makes it something that horror fans can thoroughly enjoy, as long as people can tolerate watching some bloody violence that can be nauseating to some viewers.

“X” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It’s fitting that the movie premiered in Texas, since the story takes place mostly in a rural and unnamed part of Texas. (“X” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) In “X,” the year is 1979, when porn movies made in the U.S. got an “X” rating for adults-only content. Six people in the adult film industry are going on a road trip to an isolated farm that the producer has rented, in order to make a porn film called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” This porn movie is a very low-budget film with only one camera.

The six people on this fateful trip are:

  • Wayne Gilroy (played by Martin Henderson), a brash, fast-talking middle-aged producer whose immediate goal in life is for “The Farmer’s Daughter” to be a blockbuster porn movie—or at least make a fraction of what “Debbie Does Dallas” made, so that Wayne can get out of debt.
  • Maxine Minx (played by Mia Goth), an up-and-coming actress who wants to be as famous as “Wonder Woman” TV star Lynda Carter. Off camera, Maxine (who’s in her 20s) is Wayne’s lover (he left his wife for her), and Wayne has promised to make Maxine a star. Maxine also has a cocaine habit, since she’s seen snorting coke several times in the movie.
  • Bobby-Lynne Parker (played by Brittany Snow), an experienced porn actress in her 30s, who styles her physical appearance like Marilyn Monroe, and who likes to think of herself as the reigning Southern belle of porn.
  • Jackson Hole (played by Scott Mescudi), the porn name of a well-endowed actor in his 30s who is the only male cast member doing the porn scenes in “The Farmer’s Daughter.” Bobby-Lynne and Jackson are also sex partners off-camera, in a “friends with benefits” relationship.
  • RJ Nichols (played by Owen Campbell), the director of “The Farmer’s Daughter.” RJ, who’s in his late 20s, likes to think that the porn movies he directs are cinematic art.
  • Lorraine Day (played by Jenna Ortega), RJ’s girlfriend, a “jack of all trades” crew member who is essentially RJ’s assistant. Lorraine is in her late teens or early 20s and is relatively new to the adult film industry. She’s eager to learn all that she can about filmmaking.

The movie’s opening scene shows viewers that this porn movie shoot will result in a massacre, since police officers arrive at the farm and see several bloody and mutilated dead bodies. The movie circles back to this crime scene at the end of the film. The rest of “X” shows what happened 24 hours earlier, leading up to the massacre.

It takes a while for “X” to get going, since the first half of the movie is about the road trip, arriving at the farm, and filming the sex scenes. The farm is owned by an elderly couple named Howard (played by Stephen Ure), nicknamed Howie, and his wife Pearl (also played by Goth), who have been married to each other for decades. Ure and Goth wear balding hair pieces and prosthetic makeup that give creepy and decrepit physical appearances to Howard and Pearl. Goth gives an absolutely maniacal performance as Pearl, who is much more disturbed and volatile than Howard.

Howard is a cantankerous veteran of World War I and World War II. The first thing that Howard does when he sees Wayne is pull a gun on him, until Wayne reminds Howard that he’s the movie producer who’s renting the farm for a film shoot. Wayne doesn’t tell this farm couple that this film shoot is for a porn movie, but Howard and Pearl inevitably find out because they’re on the property during this film shoot.

Pearl is starved for affection from her husband. When she tries to make amorous advances on Howard, he pushes her away and mentions his heart condition when he says, “You know I can’t. My heart.” Pearl is a former dancer who sees a lot of younger herself in Maxine and instantly fixates on Maxine. Pearl is also a voyeur, so it should come as no surprise that Pearl ends up watching one of the sex scenes that’s being filmed in the barn. And when she finds out that a porn movie is being made on her property, all hell breaks loose.

Before the murder and mayhem begin, “X” makes some sly commentary on how gender affects perceptions and judgments of people’s involvement in porn. This small cast and crew of “The Farmer’s Daughter” are a microcosm of larger issues in the adult film industry: Men are usually in charge and usually make the business decisions. The women are usually expected to follow orders.

Women in adult entertainment also get more of society’s stigma and degradation, compared to men in adult entertainment. A woman is much more likely than a man to be called a “whore” for doing porn. This derogatory name-calling happens in a scene in “X,” even though for “The Farmer’s Daughter” porn movie, a man is just as much of a participant in the sex scenes as the women. There’s a moment in the movie where one of the women flips the proverbial script and makes a decision that greatly upsets one of the men.

And because there are three couples on this trip, their dynamics also represent the types of relationships that can occur in the adult film industry. Wayne and Maxine represent a stereotypical older filmmaker who hooks up with a young actress and tells her a lot of big talk about making her a star. Bobby-Lynne and Jackson are swingers who don’t have any commitment in their relationship and don’t want to be bound by traditional sexual expectations. RJ and Lorraine represent people who are in the porn industry only to get filmmaking experience so that they can move on to mainstream movies.

“X” has the expected sex scenes, but there are also scenes that show the type of camaraderie that can happen during a film production. On their first night after filming scenes from “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the cast and crew hang out and have some drinks together. Bobby-Lynne leads a toast where she says, “Here’s to the perverts who’ve been paying our bills for years!”

After this toast, Bobby-Lynne sings Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” while Jackson plays acoustic guitar. Snow’s performance of “Landslide” is very good and one of the unexpected highlights in this horror film. This laid-back party scene is effective in showing how the people in this group have no idea what’s in store for them.

“X” has a few nods to 1970s horror classics, such as 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and 1978’s “Halloween.” The comparisons to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” are obvious. In “X,” Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” song is played during a pivotal scene. Horror aficionados know that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was also prominently featured in 1978’s “Halloween.”

Even though the first half of “X” doesn’t have any real terror, “X” still manages to keep viewers on edge over what might happen. There’s no real mystery of who the villains are, because this is a slasher flick that clearly forecasts who will be the perpetrators of the violence. Although the ideas in “X” aren’t very original, they’re still filmed in very suspenseful ways. And there’s an interesting twist/reveal toward the end of the film. Ultimately, “X” doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a worthy tribute to retro slasher films that makes “X” memorable in its own right.

A24 will release “X” in U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD is April 14, 2022.

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