Back when I saw X almost six months ago to the day, I didn’t expect to get some kind of continuation out of the film. A24 doesn’t seem like the studio to pursue franchises, but looking at things now it seems pretty clear that’s exactly what they’re going to do with Pearl. I’m almost impressed by the speed that these two movies were released, but I really shouldn’t be all that surprised given that they were shot back to back. Since it’s A24, this isn’t going to be your average horror series, at least according to director Ti West.
X was a film interested in exploring subsects of horror that aren’t as common nowadays. X wanted to examine low-budget horror from the 70s and try to encapsulate the decade in a single film, and it seems that he’s going to keep trying that with all of his X-Universe projects. At least, that’s the vibe I’m getting from how he approaches Pearl, which takes on a classic and almost theatrical look at horror from the early days of cinema. It doesn’t quite capture the style of the time, since horror wasn’t really a prevalent genre back then, but it captures a lot of the trappings of the Golden Age of Hollywood in general.
And you know what? If Ti West wants to go around and make movies that examine different periods of film history with Mia Goth while also having some blood and guts, let him do it. It’s interesting, at least, and makes it better than a good amount of the horror movies I’ve seen this year. That doesn’t mean that Pearl is particularly good mind you, it just means that the bar was set really damn low.
Director: Ti West
Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theatrical)
Set 60 years before the events of X, Pearl (Mia Goth) is a young farm girl whose husband has gone off to fight in World War I. She’s left at her family’s farm and is forced to take care of her vegetative father (Matthew Sunderland) and endure stern punishments from her scornful mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl wants nothing more than to become a dancer and escape the farm, dreaming to end up just like the girls she sees at the movies. As we soon learn more about her, we begin to realize that she’s a monster who probably should stay on that farm and never interact with the outside world.
As a prequel, Pearl’s job was a relatively simple one: flesh out the villain from the first movie. In X, Pearl was a sympathetic and almost tragic villain, a barely alive woman who just wants to feel loved again by someone and will enact bloody vengeance when spurred. You really did feel and emote for her, even as she did horrible and reprehensible things. If Pearl was going to be an effective prequel, then all that the film needed us to do was depict the tragedy of Pearl’s life. Show us how she becomes this heartless murderer that we would see 60 years later. That’s where the problems start.
According to the film, Pearl was always a murderer and always a villain. The very first scene has us watch her murder a goose and feed it to a hungry alligator, with Pearl later confirming that she likes to kill plenty of animals. The more we learn about her in the movie, the more I just didn’t care about her and actively disliked her. I didn’t dislike her because of the actions she did, but because of her attitude. Pearl behaves like a petulant child who didn’t get her way, lashing out at anyone and making others afraid of her because of her very mean-spirited attitude. You do understand where she’s coming from, as she frequently imagines her mother’s scathing remarks coming from others, but it still doesn’t endear us to her.
Mia Goth does do a wonderful job at portraying this though. Between this and X, she clearly has a range and can take on a variety of characters with very different mindsets and histories. I would be interested to see what she’s capable of outside of Ti West’s horror movies since she has the potential to be special. So no, I don’t think her portrayal of Pearl is inherently bad, especially when she has a soul-bearing monologue towards the end of the film in one continuous take that lasts an eternity. I just think that the direction and vision feel half-hearted and not fully realized.
X was pretty clear about showing how cinema can impact society and the shifting mindsets of the time. Pearl gets too preoccupied in establishing the world of the first film that it forgets to be about something. There are a few comparisons to be made to The Wizard of Oz, but only in how it’s an inverted take on it. While Dorothy originally left her farm with a desire to come back to it, Pearl is stuck there and wants nothing more than to leave. I guess that’s an observation of cinema of the period, but other than that it’s all aesthetics. The closing credits are done in the same style as most classic Hollywood films, Pearl befriends a projectionist and gets to see a porno for the first time, and she envisions herself as a dancer on screen.
There doesn’t seem to be any connective tissue between the cinematic allusions and any real meaning. Halfway through the film, Pearl has the chance to be a dancer and tour local towns for a holiday pageant, so that becomes the focus instead of the desire for being on screen. Those comparisons to cinema are thrown out the door in favor of a nebulous desire for fame and stardom, something that X did touch on, but it just feels so generic here. Other than that, there are a smattering of other ideas that don’t get developed, like a weird series of references to mask culture and pandemics that feels out of place and don’t go anywhere. It’s almost as if Pearl gets distracted by everything that’s inside of it because it doesn’t have a strong core to center itself around.
The biggest crime against Pearl, however, is that it actively harms X. I admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of that film, but I found a lot of elements in it enjoyable and would give it a solid recommendation if anyone was interested in it. Pearl, on the other hand, takes a lot of those positive elements and makes them weaker. Pearl isn’t as interesting or sympathetic of a character now because of this film. The setting isn’t as mysterious or interesting now that we know it’s just a farm. It just doesn’t add anything of merit to X.
Outside of a great performance by Goth and the most unsettling ending credits I’ve seen in a horror movie, Pearl underdelivers. I wasn’t expecting much from it, but it made me wish I hadn’t seen it. Pearl as a character is unlikeable in all of the bad ways, the movie plods along at a snail’s pace, much like the first film, and it gets too distracted by a lot of competing ideas and themes. I hope that for the already confirmed third movie, MaXXXine, West takes more time and care with his script to address the problems within it and focuses more on what worked in X than what’s here in Pearl.