8/10 In March, A24 released writer/director/editor/producer Ti West’s X, a time capsule of a slasher film set in 1979 in which amateur pornographers run headfirst into exactly the kind of sadistic murderers who would fill the void pornography was about to leave on the big screen. The film features Mia Goth in dual roles as both the lead character and the elderly Pearl. Days after X started rolling, it was announced that West, Goth and much of the same behind-the-scenes team had, on the same set at mostly the same time, produced another film set in 1918 about Pearl as a teenager. That’s simply titled Pearl, and it came out in September.
Texas, 1918- as the Great War draws to a close and the influenza pandemic chokes domestic life, Pearl (Goth, who also produces), despairs. She knows she has that “X” factor, that she could be a star in those newfangled pictureshows, but even without the pandemic, she’d be stuck on the farm with her abusive mother and infirm father, and she knows when her husband returns from the trenches, she’ll never escape. As she desperately prepares to audition for a Hollywood crew in town, she begins to take her frustration out through compulsive sex and murder.
Pearl and X are the same movie in ways that almost go beyond sharing so much of their production, crew and set, obviously starting with genre but ranging all the way to the use of masks to separate humanity from inhumane action, hellfire preachers and Christian guilt as background motivations and relationship to media dynamics in that moment. They’re both period pieces not just in concept but in design – several homages to The Wizard of Oz aren’t enough, Pearl looks like West scrounged the very cameras from the set. The film is in brilliant Technicolor, and almost everything on the screen pops in ways that we’re not used to seeing in the era of digital color correction.
Pearl also has many of the same character dynamics, with the young Goth’s character eagerly trying to break into the hot new craze hindered by two elderly characters, one prudish to the point of hostility and one who can barely move anymore. Among other things, these movies are about the loss, real and imagined, that comes with the passage of time, and it’s surreal to see those things expressed so similarly.
The saying is that every director remakes the same movie over and over, but it’s generally surreal to see it happen this literally. West is approaching almost the exact same subject here twice without time or even a physical distance between productions. The story is that West was inspired to make Pearl specifically by the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which makes sense – the distance between early and late March 2020 was much more than a few weeks for everyone. The theme of these movies moving from one to the other seems to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that feeling isn’t limited to comparing the two films. The pandemic is central to Pearl, with bulky cloth medical masks covering every face when Pearl goes to town.
No one stays the same quite like Pearl herself. The older character is a very simple pain-pleasure creature, demanding sex with murder as a fallback option to create what appears to be a similar pleasure response. The younger Pearl has the same interests and is somehow even more similar than that – when we’re introduced to her, she’s fanaticizing about being younger, being the age of Maxine, Goth’s other character in X. Now that she is, she insists she’s got that “X” factor that will make her a star, Maxine’s same fantasy.
Goth is spectacular as a character in constant contradiction, a person who wants everyone to know her name and hates being stared at, a tension which plays out in many of the film’s best moments. She disgustedly screams, “I am married” at a suitor, and then immediately has sex with him. She lets a victim leave, and then immediately chases after her for a kill. Goth’s stride and posture and wide hips make her look always off-balance, like a toddler in a bulky diaper exuberantly exploring her surroundings.
Film a profoundly powerful tool for conveying madness and a personalized world that only the main character can see, but as Pearl has a psychotic break, unlike many films with an insane protagonist, the world around her stays the same. She moves away from the audience in a way protagonists rarely do, and we’re forced to see her as inappropriate as she is, a little like a less deliberately inflammatory version of Todd Phillips’ Joker that way.
That contributes to what really sets these movies apart – the unflinching, realistic-feeling gore. West consistently refuses to cut away from bodies being shredded by bullets and blades, and everything else on these movies’ minds is subservient to actually bringing the grindhouse slasher goods.
In Pearl, the inability to look away from the lead character and what’s happening to her expands, from the instantly iconic final shot to the audition she refuses to leave to its central symbol, a roast pig gifted to Pearl’s family early in the film, but left out of spite to sit on her front porch and be consumed by flies. The roast’s decomposition mirror’s Pearl’s mental state, and West never passes up an opportunity to linger on it. It even extends to the real audience perspective character, Pearl’s father, sitting helplessly, able only to stare in horror.
I like and sympathize with Pearl in X, and I like her even more in Pearl. Her frustration isn’t just sexual, it’s environmental. In neither film does she have a way forward, and it’s heartbreaking to watch Pearl knowing that she’ll never leave that house. She’s a caged animal. All she can do to rebel is kill anything that steps into the cage with her, and I can’t help but root for her as she does.