Pearl (2022)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2022


Thanks to Marvel, sitting through the credits to see something extra has become so commonplace there are entire sites devoted to whether or not it'll be worth you time (beyond, of course, seeing the names of the people who made the thing you just watched and presumably enjoyed if you're hoping to see more). Usually it's a little joke or maybe a promise of a sequel, but X had to be the first to show not a scene, but a trailer for a prequel film that was already made in secret and would be coming along later in the year. And - less of a surprise since it's been announced and Pearl has been out for a few weeks now - this one ends with the promise of another entry titled MaXXXine! The Ti West-iverse is here!

For those who didn't see the previous film (or just forgot), Pearl is the murderer character in X, and (spoiler here!) played by Mia Goth, who also played that film's heroine. Many films have played the "the hero doesn't want to end up like the villain" card before, but I can't think of one where both roles were actually played by the same performer in order to hammer the point home. Of course, Goth was nearly unrecognizable in her old-age Pearl makeup, and there would be no reason to put her in that makeup again for a sequel, so the prequel route makes total sense: Goth gets to further explore an interesting character without being burdened by latex and such, and we in the audience get a new movie that - being made before the first one was released - wasn't dictated by what audiences would demand from a followup.

Which is to say that this isn't "X 2" by any means - I wouldn't even call it a slasher if it wasn't for its connection to the original. It's more in line with the "Psycho Biddies" films of yore like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, except with the obvious difference that Goth is far from "past her prime" - if anything it's the sort of performance that could elevate her career if the right folks can get past their bias against horror (I saw an article the other day saying she'd be up for an Oscar if it wasn't a horror film, which... sigh). Pearl is a farmgirl who longs for a bigger life, convinced she will be a big movie star if she can just get to show the world how talented she is. A chance arrives in the form of a dance audition, but her domineering mother forbids her to go - naturally this means she'll do whatever it takes to get there, and bad things start happening.

Of course, the truth is that lots of girls are just as or even more talented than Pearl, but she can't accept that she's not all that special in the grand scheme of things. The film is set during the 1918 pandemic, and it's easy to see the parallels: Pearl is a lot like we all have been over the past couple years, longing to escape but feeling trapped and for some of us (thanks to increased online interactions as a result in our case) realizing that we're not bringing anything new to the table. We're all making the same jokes on twitter as dozens of others, all posting the same GIFs in response to someone else... even with the hundred year difference in setting, I feel many will (uncomfortably) see themselves in Goth's character, liable to snap if confronted with one more example of how little we matter to the world at large. It's an incredible showcase for Goth; she's in all but one brief scene in the film, and finds that balance between being sympathetic and murderous; in fact she was almost hitting that mark in X, but here, seeing what led her to murder and how she comes to accept her lot in life, is truly heartbreaking. Even after she's killed a few people (all but one guilty of absolutely nothing), you still feel for her - it's a remarkable performance that could be disastrous in the hands of a less capable performer.

That said, I have to admit I was slightly underwhelmed by the film as a whole. Given the way it was made (written during a weekend Covid-mandated quarantine, shot in secret at the end of X's production) it wasn't exactly a shock to discover that there wasn't much meat on the film's bones outside of Goth's performance. Someone compared it to a videogame's DLC, and I think that's apt - it never quite feels like a complete film on its own, as if it was hollowed out a bit before reaching our eyeballs. It doesn't help that the aforementioned teaser (and subsequent traditional trailers) spoil pretty much every one of the film's acts of violence, all of which are presented as shocking moments we shouldn't have seen coming. It's one thing for a traditional slasher to give away some of its kills in the marketing, but here, the movie is basically a "How much can she take before she snaps?" kind of deal and we go in knowing who will be on the receiving end of her rage. Given the 60 year gap between the two films, anyone could have conceivably survived this film without their absence in X being weird, so I wish the trailer had been a little more conservative with what it showed off if only to give the film some needed suspense.

(That said, I forgot her husband's name from X, so they got some of that intrigue back unintentionally, as I couldn't tell you for sure which of the film's two male characters was her devoted spouse in the other film, or if was even either of them!)

On the plus side, it thankfully avoids too much "prequel humor", which is the sort of thing I can't stand (like in one of the Star Wars prequels when Obi-Wan says "You'll be the death of me!" to young Anakin, arrrgh). Pearl stands on a spot marked X when she auditions for a dancing troupe, and I could practically see Ti West smirking as he trained his camera on it and held the edit a beat longer than necessary, as if he too found such gags to be pretty lame and wanted to go overboard. Instead, for the most part he opted to enrich the X experience for those who go back and watch it again, post-Pearl. The bike she rides throughout this film can be seen rotting away in X, and if you happened to notice a wheelchair in the dark basement when Jenna Ortega was trapped down there, now you'll know where it came from. And yes, the gator's mama is in the nearby pond, getting a glorious moment as the film's title appears.

Speaking of the film's graphics, after Goth the best reason to see the movie is the lush, technicolor inspired photography, where everything pops like Wizard of Oz (a film that has more than one direct influence on this one). Given the low-key way the film was made and the fact that X didn't exactly burn up the box office (though it did turn a healthy profit and is far and away West's highest grossing film) I figured that Pearl would go direct to streaming with maybe a minor theatrical run the week before, and I've rarely been happier to be wrong. In fact it ended up opening on more screens than X did (and is on track to make roughly the same amount of money), allowing me to see it on a big multiplex screen instead of a smaller art house one (which would also be a longer drive, I'm sure). I kind of love that the most vivid and striking live action movie I saw on the big screen this year was a cheap horror flick. More like this!

Ultimately, while it's a bit threadbare in the narrative department and contains few surprises to those who haven't seen the trailer, it's definitely worth seeing even if you didn't like X (and goes without saying, you can fully "get" this without having seen it at all), as it's a much different beast. Goth's performance (I haven't even mentioned her monologue near the end - good lord), the visuals, and the lovely score are all top notch and more or less make up for its slightly undercooked screenplay. And as we get more and more exposed to TikTokers and the like who are far more convinced of their talent than anyone else, I find it endlessly amusing that one of the most timely genre films I've seen in a while is set over 100 years ago.

What say you?


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