4 out of 5 stars

Ti West’s X (2022) was a surprise hit for the writer-director. A homage to 1970s exploitation classics like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), X followed a group of amateur filmmakers attempting to make a porno, before being killed by the elderly couple who own the farmhouse location they’re shooting on. West and leading actress Mia Goth (Infinity Pool) quickly concocted an origin story for the withered female villain and Pearl was soon announced soon. Although a direct prequel, X and Pearl are distinct movies that offer differing experiences, with this film swapping X’s desaturated aesthetic for hyper-stylised colouring that better fits a fantasy spiralling into a nightmare.

Set in 1918, Pearl (Mia Goth) is a young wife stranded on a family farm in rural Texas. Her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is fighting overseas while those back home are grappling with an influenza pandemic. Pearl hates living under the same suffocating roof as her family where she sullenly obeys the harsh commands of her domineering German mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), spending most of her time doing chores and caring for her disabled father (Mathew Sunderland). She longs to free herself from the farm’s confines and fantasises about becoming a glamorous Hollywood star. Then, during a clandestine trip to the local theatre, Pearl meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) who introduces her to the concept of pornography, but as she slowly falls for his charms…. something dark inside her psyche is unlocked…

Since giving disturbing performances in A Cure for Wellness (2016) and Suspiria (2018), Mia Goth’s become comfortable navigating emotional extremes and tonal shifts. Goth’s reprisal of Pearl is unparalleled as she personifies a terrifying perspective on Hollywood escapism while imbuing such a disturbing character with enough innocent wishfulness that earns some empathy. With her large eyes and braids decorously tied in vintage ribbon, Pearl strongly resembles Dorothy Gale dreaming of an escape to somewhere over the rainbow. But while she longs for stardom, her ruthless mother insists she conforms to her own unflinching vision of femininity, and her monotonous existence is only mitigated by infrequent trips to the movies while collecting her father’s medicine from the nearest town. And as she becomes more obsessed with becoming a dancer, Pearl slowly succumbs to a brutal delirium. 

We’re gifted brief moments of Pearl’s violent tendencies and troubling behaviour early on. During the opening sequence, she kills a goose with a pitchfork before feeding it to a veracious alligator who lives in the nearby lake; then a later encounter with a scarecrow ends with a shattering orgasm that scatters a murder of crows. However, it’s the cooked pig left decomposing on her porch that symbolises Pearl’s psychological plight as she wrestles with her own identity and desires. The decaying carcass serves as a constant reminder of her dark transition and lost potential. It’s a delicate balancing act between an enthusiastic dreamer and an unfathomable monster, but Goth compartmentalises the opposing sides of Pearl’s personality wonderfully. It’s a dexterous performance and she manages to find tenderness even in the most grotesque moments. She fills the stage better than an entire troupe in Palace Follies, effortlessly showcasing her character’s emotional conflicts and homicidal impulses.

Those familiar with Ti West may be disappointed that Pearl is less beholden to the visceral intensity usually found in his filmography. Co-written by West and Goth herself, the screenplay focuses on the psychological downfall of a repressed young woman hoping for a brighter future, but what makes Pearl so horrifying is witnessing the character’s slow descent into madness as her desire for stardom slips from her grasp. The suspense lies in the anticipation of whether or not Pearl is going to use an omnipresent sharp farm implement on the people around her. West allows scenes to play out to an absolute breaking point, leaving audiences in constant anticipation. Each interaction is underscored with a foreboding dread that creates a wonderful kind of tension. Admittedly, Pearl’s overtly psychological journey may underwhelm those expecting a more conventional slasher like X. However, West rewards his patient audience during the final act with some gruesome images that surpass its predecessor. 

Although Pearl doesn’t offer the same amount of bloodshed as X, it definitely improves on the viewing experience of its predecessor. Perhaps Pearl’s greatest accomplishment is humanising Pearl by exploring the catalyst for her behaviour without demystifying the character. West builds layers of complexity to her unsalvageable strangeness and compels us to understand her sociopathic self-actualisation. The climax centres on a masterful five-minute monologue where Pearl attempts to articulate her anxieties and desires to Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro). This soliloquy is a masterful insight into a disturbed mind that also provides a keen understanding of this tragic character’s malevolence and determination to escape an unfulfilling life. The themes remain equally relatable and poignant as they were in X, but Pearl intelligently elevates the character’s arc by revealing her motivations. Regardless of the viewing order, each installment strengthens the other.  

West’s complete commitment to the visual dynamic is terrifically accomplished and there’s a demented glee that permeates every frame. While X was informed by the grindhouse aesthetic of 1970s exploitation flicks, West takes an altogether different approach here. Drawing inspiration from Technicolor wonders like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939), Pearl plays like a twisted pastiche of mid-20th-century melodramas. The alluring opening sequence juxtaposes Tyler Bates (John Wick: Chapter 2) and Tim Williams (Brightburn) rousing symphonic score with distinctive credit fonts, while Eliot Rockett’s (The Innkeepers) sumptuous cinematography imbues each composition with vivid colours and a soft palette to heighten the surrealism. It’s refreshing to see West experiment with the styles of the auteurs who inspired him instead of repeating a proven formula. The jaunty malevolence and dreamlike quality is a jarring contrast when compared to the moaning ambiance of X, but this deliberate camp aesthetic and tone conveys the fantasy that exists within the mind of Pearl.

Pearl is a masterclass of horror filmmaking and Ti West displays complete confidence within his filmmaking sensibilities. It’s a beautifully shot fever dream that profoundly explores the complexities of repression and mental health. The methodical pacing has a foreboding pulse and Mia Goth delivers a spellbinding central performance that beautifully captures the emotional anguish of her character. It may not provide the straightforward horror thrills of its predecessor, but Pearl’s outlandish and disquieting originality will likely appeal to many fans of A24’s previous offerings. With the third entry in the series, Maxxxine, already in production, it’ll be interesting to see how West ends this unlikely horror trilogy.


frame rated divider a24

Cast & Crew

director: Ti West.
Ti West & Mia Goth.
Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro & Alistair Sewell.