At the end of Ti West's X, after the credits finished rolling, there was a surprise teaser for Pearl, his secretly-made prequel about the younger years of the movie's female villain. There's another teaser after this film, letting us know that we've just seen the middle section of a trilogy. Normally prequels are fairly lame, because who wants to see a villain before they're evil? In this case, though, what West comes up with adds to your appreciation of X. You don't need to have seen the earlier film to follow this one, although I doubt anyone who didn't see X will care about it.
Mia Goth, who cowrote the script and played both Maxine and old Pearl in the previous installment, returns here. Set in 1918, Pearl is a young woman whose husband is off fighting WWI. She's at home on her German parents' farm. Her mom is cruel and controlling, her father at death's door. The influenza rages outside, leaving Pearl essentially trapped. A lack of activity, intimacy, and connection leads to acting upon her strangest impulses, such as when she has an erotic encounter with a scarecrow out in the field.
During a trip into town, she sees a movie musical and then meets the theater protectionist (David Corenswet), who encourages her to follow her newfound dream of being a dancer just like the women she saw onscreen. Her efforts to get off the farm, coming primarily in the form of auditioning for a traveling musical show, are jeopardized, pushing her further to the brink of madness.
Whereas X had a gritty look inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pearl is shot like an old Judy Garland movie. It's reminiscent of A Star Is Born or Summer Stock, but with a psychopathic twist, as the farm girl believes she is destined for stardom, only to become unhinged when things don't go her way. (There's even a musical fantasy sequence to illustrate the intersection between her dreams and her fractured mind.) It's clever how West creates a familiar artifice for both films, using visual language we recognize, then distorting it into something new. We even get a pornographic tie-in to X, when Pearl sees an early stag film.
Mia Goth is fantastic in the lead role. Pearl does horrific stuff in the story, yet the actress makes sure we empathize with her anyway. She creates a young woman who is profoundly broken, trapped in a bad situation from which there is no easy escape. Obvious mental health problems exacerbate that. The most remarkable scene is a monologue Goth delivers in an unbroken shot that must last at least three minutes. Essentially having a breakdown on-camera, she's riveting to watch. Because she's so good, Pearl's descent into madness feels especially tragic.
It's worth noting that the movie is more of a character study than an outright horror flick, even though it does have horror elements sprinkled throughout. Only in the last half-hour or so does it truly embrace the genre with several brutal acts of violence, stunningly filmed by West in split screen. For that reason, it doesn't satisfy in quite the same way X did. Audiences coming in primed for pure terror may feel slightly underwhelmed by the comparatively restrained tone.
Taken for what it is, Pearl makes a good companion piece to X. We more fully understand why the character reacted the way she did in that 1970s-set story. We grasp the source of her violent tendencies and the reasons she got triggered by those pesky wannabe pornographers. Again, if you didn't see the prior film, your interest in the character's origins may be minimal. But if you did, you'll appreciate Ti West's alluring deep-dive into the background of his memorable antagonist.
out of four
Pearl is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.