Pearl, a prequel to the acclaimed X (2022) and the second movie in the X film trilogy, opens on a beautiful and idyllic Texas farm reminiscent of Hollywood’s silver screen era pictures like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Director Ti West uses technicolor saturation levels, sprawling camera angles, and a sweeping soundtrack to evoke a sense of grandeur typical for depictions of rural life on film in this period. West co-wrote the script with star Mia Goth.
Out of this pastoral paradise, Pearl (Goth) appears as an innocent farm girl with ambitions beyond the confines of her family’s property. She preens privately in her room, sneaks off to see forbidden ‘moving pictures’ in town, and dreams of dancing on stage to adoring audiences, all out of the eyesight of her domineering German mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright). However, her dreams encounter opposition as the realities of her life come into view.
Beyond the usual demands that one would expect living on a farm, Pearl is also responsible for helping her mother care for her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland). Goth and West skillfully build sympathy for Pearl in the opening stages. However, this sympathy is tested when Pearl’s capacity for violence emerges, and the carnage begins.
Pearl's violence is terrifying because of how her femininity is portrayed. She is childlike and dependent on the love of those around her, which aligns with traditional agrarian values. Unfortunately for Pearl, she only experiences love when her actions align with the expectations of others. She is loved for the utility of her gender and only in the way that others choose to recognize it. When she attempts to use her sexuality to fulfill her desires, she finds punishment or abandonment. As frustration mounts, Pearl states, “… you have no idea what I’m capable of.” This foreshadowing exceeds all expectations as Pearl descends into cruelty and malice. Her eventual brutality exceeds even the worst that Lizzie Borden was only accused of. Like Borden, Pearl’s violence resonates that much more, not only because of a natural distaste for murder but because it rejects an entire value system, one based upon her fertility and expected female roles.
Serving as backdrops to Pearl’s sexual rebellion are the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 and the First World War. Both events combined killed millions of Americans and fomented widespread anti-German sentiments. Germans, historically one of the largest immigration groups to the United States, were accused of being spies for the ‘Vaterland,’ intentionally spreading the pandemic, and were frequently attacked violently. German families who did leave took measures to hide their heritage by changing their family names, claiming another acceptable European ancestry, and refraining from speaking German in public.
Given this backdrop, Goth and West are not just writing about denied female agency but also reflecting on contemporary reactions to the recent COVID pandemic. If sympathy exists for Pearl and her forbidden dreams, then compassion should also exist for Asian Americans who recently experienced the same discrimination. In a way, Pearl is an ethnic anti-hero struggling against the world’s injustice due to no fault of her own. She is a prisoner not only to her gender but her ethnic heritage as well.
Goth navigates Pearl’s predicaments and skillfully transitions her from dutiful daughter to merciless killer in an authentic and nuanced performance. She conveys Pearl’s sexuality and rage equally, making these characteristics equally impactful. She makes Pearl feel sympathetic, even while carrying out her heinous crimes. Right up to the closing shot, it is evident that Goth has poured all she has into Pearl. In all, Goth’s performance deserves recognition at the highest levels.
West supports Goth’s performance with outstanding direction, cinematography, and storytelling. The tempo of the film never fails to engage the viewer’s attention. West’s framing of each scene effectively builds tension, even if no pitchforks are flying at a given moment. West’s use of red is worthy of special mention; red features prominently in almost every scene and is unusually visible due to the heightened saturation levels. Like his use of animals as emblems for violence, fertility, and decay in other parts of the film, red visually embodies the power struggle between characters on screen. West’s skill as a storyteller is on full display and is a pleasure to watch as the film unfolds.
Pearl is an outstanding and masterfully crafted horror film. Goth’s performance shines simultaneously with sympathy and brutality. She delivers one of the best performances of the past year, and not just in horror.