Review: Prequel Pearl Offers Effective Horror Wrapped Up in One Flawless Performance

It’s a rare thing when a sequel is better than the original; rarer still when a prequel is better than an original film that was already pretty special. But here we are with director Ti West’s Pearl, an origin story of sorts to the elderly woman character in his other 2022 film X, in which Mia Goth (who co-wrote Pearl with West) played Maxine, an up-and-coming adult film actress hoping be become a star by embarking on a career in porn circa the 1970s, set and shot on the farm property of an elderly couple, Howard and Pearl. Her character was so intent on becoming famous that it drove her a little insane and into the home of the deranged Pearl (also played by Goth, although unrecognizably so), who, it turned out, looked an awful lot like Maxine when she was younger.

So Goth and West took that coincidence and turned it into Pearl, set in the early 1920s, right when the Spanish Flu pandemic was in full swing (you didn’t have to convince people to wear masks back then). Pearl lives on the farm with her infirmed and barely communicative father (Matthew Sunderland) and restrictive, devout mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), who regularly dishes out punishments to Pearl for bad behavior, like dancing alone in the barn. To be clear, Pearl is a grown woman, recently married to Howard (Alistair Sewell), who is overseas fighting in World War I. And much like Maxine, Pearl is desperate to become a star like she has seen in the many silent films she’s seen in town. She practices singing and dancing whenever she can, in the hopes that she’ll be discovered and she can leave the farm forever.

West has a great deal of fun giving Pearl an old-school Technicolor look, while also embracing the vintage qualities of silent film, including an ancient stag film (yes, porn still plays a part in this movie as well) that Pearl is shown by the local projectionist (David Corenswet), who is the one temptation she can’t resist, especially when he makes vague promises about getting her in the pictures. Her other possible shot at fame comes when open auditions are held in town for a traveling group of performers, and Pearl’s sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) convinces Pearl to go with her to try out. Things don’t exactly go according to plan.

Goth has a series of moments in Pearl that begin with her song-and-dance audition routine and conclude during the end credits that feature some of the best acting I’ve seen in any film this year. She so beautifully captures the desperation to be special, to leave the farm, and to get out from under the world’s expectations that you can see the cracks in her psyche form and deepen before your eyes. It’s mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and ultimately quite terrifying. Despite the potential for violence that permeates the entire piece (especially when she gets to the swampy pond holding her beloved gator pet), Pearl isn’t a traditional horror film; it’s more of a psychological thriller that gives way to one of the best showcases for fine acting you’ll see in 2022. 

I saw a quote about this movie that referred to it as “blood-soaked,” and I can only assume that the critic that wrote that got a bloody nose during their viewing, because the film has very little blood to speak of. Pearl doesn’t even really snap and do any killing until the last few minutes of the movie. Patience is one of the film’s strongest qualities, and I love that Goth and West take their time letting us get to know what Pearl is made of on her best day before tearing her down and letting us see what she’s hiding underneath the bold smiles and misguided optimism. I’ve just found out that a proper sequel to X is in the works (titled MaXXXine), and it will supposedly tie up the trilogy, although I feel that a lot has to happen in the 50 or so years that transpire between Pearl and X that I would genuinely like to see; certain questions about Pearl and Howard’s marriage, in particular, are in desperate need of answering.

But on its own terms, Pearl is incredibly effective, flawlessly acted, and works as both a standalone piece and as part of a whole. Tense, gripping and sometimes shocking, the movie comes in as one of the better horror experiences I’ve had this year.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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