Ti West’s “Pearl” is a moderately bloody slasher flick about a salt-of-the-earth farmgirl turned axe murderer named Pearl (Mia Goth). With a husband fighting in World War I, a father disabled by the Spanish flu and a mother crushing all dreams of escape, Pearl deals with her domestic repression by slaughtering everyone in sight. Since Goth plays her, it’s glorious.
“Pearl” has two major shortcomings: the story is lazy and not a second is frightening. The film may be the only completely unsurprising horror film this year. It simply does nothing new — the gory visuals are too restrained to be campy. The style is too superficial, with its homages to stuffy ‘30s and ‘50s Technicolor cinema to be intelligent. The exposition is too dialogue-dependent to be creative.
The fact that the film is still worth seeing speaks to Goth’s acting and writing abilities alongside West. She’s in such top form that she’s utterly predictable — one knows from the first hitch in Pearl’s voice exactly who, when and why she’ll kill — but it doesn’t subtract from the fun one bit.
It would be shocking if the one monologue Goth performs, a raw but unoriginal speech about “something missing in (her) that the rest of the world has,” doesn’t win her an Oscar nomination. With the film’s end credits alone — the text rolling over several live-wire minutes of Goth’s cornfed, brow-twitching, cheek-aching grin — she may be a shoo-in.
“Pearl” is a prequel to West’s better horror film this year, “X.” The film was written while “X” production was stalled during pandemic lockdowns, and secretly filmed back-to-back when “X” shooting wrapped.
“X” concerns the attempts of a troupe of ‘70s porn stars and filmmakers to shoot a farm-themed skin flick in the barnyard of an elderly couple who, upon discovering the plan, are titillated. Goth plays both the porn star, Maxine, and the old woman, Pearl, who has long-unfulfilled dreams of being the sultry star Maxine can be.
“Pearl” manages to be both less repressive and more boring; less repressive because it doesn’t share the hangups about geriatric sexuality that concern “X” and more boring because it is not the cheap, wet and wrinkly gorefest that makes “X” so unsettling. When “Pearl” succeeds, it succeeds as a character study that formulaically but capably tracks the homegrown American meld of fantasy and frustration which has no place for the young woman between the streets’ corruption and her mother’s servitude.
In both of these films, the villains are villains because they’re inhibited. “X” probes how inherited morals entrench this repression; the obscenely modern protagonists’ attempt to live differently is their downfall. In “Pearl,” the protagonist alone thrives — only by living on the villains’ terms more faithfully than their own.
For instance, Pearl tries to escape her provincial fate by auditioning for a touring dance troupe at her local church; she’s rejected, and wrongly assumes that her young, blonde sister-in-law, Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), got the part. Guess what happens next.
Moments before getting the ol’ hack-and-slice from Pearl, Mitzy begs, “Please, I’ll do anything you want!” Pearl, echoing her mother’s stern Protestant scoldings, replies: “It’s not about what I want anymore, Mitzy, it’s about making the best of what I have.”
“Pearl” is worth seeing because Goth doesn’t stop at that wishful dreaming — as though she would’ve been a well-adjusted girl if only her Ma let her out once in a while. No, Pearl’s desire for more than what she has undoes her. Even when all she has is domestic delusion, Pearl makes it masterfully clear that her desire for a free life is no less deceiving.
Her parents, while brutal in denying her this freedom, have a point in knowing that it’s hard-won and uncertain. What really drives Pearl is gratification, in all its brief and unsatisfying violence. If only Goth went further — but that’s just not the way Mama raised her.