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Pearl (A Movie Review)

PEARL (2022)

Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro and Alistair Sewell.

Screenplay by Ti West and Mia Goth.

Directed by Ti West.

Distributed by A24. 102 minutes. Rated R.

You wouldn’t exactly expect for there to be a sequel – or rather a prequel – to Ti West’s slasher film X. While the director is very respected in horror circles with the likes of The House of Blood, The Innkeepers and In the Valley of Violence, in which West did creepy tributes which celebrate and subvert classic horror and film tropes. (Of the three just mentioned, they were pastiches of devil worship, ghost stories and violent westerns.) And X itself – about a 1970s porn film shoot at a secluded farm which became a blood bath – turned many of the splatter genre cliches on their heads.

X did fairly well on the arthouse and festival circuit and received a good amount of positive press when it was released earlier this year. However, it had been six years since West’s last feature film (In the Valley of Violence). So, who was really expecting an origin story of X to come out a mere six months down the line from X? Obviously, they were filming Pearl before the release of X, so the story was planned to be told in two parts even before anyone knew what the reaction to the first film would be. Also, West said he was working on an idea for a third film in the franchise, again even before X came out.

Pearl goes back further in time to the 1910s and tells the story of the title character, who years later as an elderly woman would end up massacring several young porn filmmakers and stars. (Apologies if that is a spoiler for X – but if you are interested enough to read about Pearl, I’m assuming you already know that storyline. Besides, the killer in that film was hardly a secret through much of the movie.)

Pearl looks at the character when she was young, filling in some of the details which were teased throughout the running time of X. Pearl is played by Mia Goth, who not only played Pearl – in aging makeup – the first time around, but also played Maxine, the apparently unrelated star of the porn film in X. Goth also co-wrote Pearl with West.

Part of the plan of this series, as West has said, is to make each chapter stylistically different than the one which preceded it. Therefore, if X was supposed to be a tribute to 1970s thrillers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, Pearl was always planned to be a more somber affair, a dark side of the Disney dream, specifically modeled after the films of Douglas Sirk.

In fact, fans of X expecting more of that film’s slow-burning grindhouse exploitation vibe will be in for a bit of a shock to the system. Pearl is more of an old-fashioned relationship drama – imagine something Todd Haynes would do – with occasional short splashes of blood and mayhem.

In fact, the violent sections, although necessary to the story and the emotional growth (or lack thereof) of the protagonist, always feel a little awkward in this talky, technicolor chamber piece. They are usually dispatched quickly and less graphically than the previous film, sweeping the mess under the rug as so much of this film does. In fact, at one point Pearl does a long monologue in which she finally opens up her slightly twisted world view to another character in a single closeup shot – and that is every bit as suspenseful and creepy as the more overtly horrific moments.

Like the violence, the sex is done much more subtly than in the previous film, which somewhat makes sense for a film taking place in 1918 as compared to 1979. However, for that time period, Pearl was a rather sexual character, and that does come across.

Of course, this origin tale opens up some questions, too. For example, if Pearl was already a somewhat psychopathic killer all these years before, how is it possible that she has apparently gotten away with her crimes for over six decades before the action of X takes place?

Then again, maybe that will be the path that West’s teased third film covers. I wonder where they’ll go with that, both story wise and stylistically? Maybe Pearl has a film noir murder spree in the 40s, or lives through a dust bowl tragedy massacre during the Great Depression? I guess the fact that I’m still interested enough to wonder shows that there is still more potential left in this tale yet.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: September 16, 2022.

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