Earlier this year, X shocked audiences with its brutal violence, frank depictions of female sexuality, and authentic 70’s vibe. Now Ti West’s fascinating female villain, Pearl (Mia Goth), is back with her own self-titled origin story. Set in 1918, Pearl follows the early life of the elderly woman who runs amok on her crumbling farm and tears through the six-person crew filming a porno on her property. Before giving in to her bloodlust, Pearl shares a tense scene with burgeoning starlet Maxine, also played by Goth, and laments the loss of her own youth and beauty. Far from the gritty ‘70s exploitation-esque film it precedes, Pearl is an ultra-stylized technicolor fairytale more akin to The Wizard of Oz than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This fantasy adventure quickly spirals into a nightmare highlighting the juxtaposition between the world Pearl envisions for herself and the reality she inhabits.
Pearl is a young wife stuck living on her parents farm while her husband is away fighting overseas. Her mother is a ruthlessly practical German immigrant and her father is so sick he’s basically catatonic. Pearl spends most of her time doing chores and serving as his nursemaid. But Pearl dreams of a life of stardom. She hates her rural existence and fantasizes about becoming a dancer on a Hollywood stage. In fact, she married her wealthy husband so that he would take her away from her rural life only to find that he enjoys playing the role of farmer. Her mother doesn’t approve of Pearl’s ambitions and her only company are the farm animals and Veda, the alligator who lives in the nearby lake. On a clandestine trip to the movies, Pearl meets a young projectionist (David Corenswet) who introduces her to the concept of pornography and makes vague promises about taking her to Europe. With all of her hopes pinned on an audition for a traveling dance troupe, Pearl makes plans to leave her boring life behind even if it means burning it all down first.
West was clearly inspired by The Wizard of Oz when crafting his second farmhouse horror film and parallels to the MGM classic abound. Pearl is a dark version of Dorothy dying to escape the farm she’s grown up on. Her first lover is an inanimate scarecrow she meets while riding her bicycle past a cornfield and the man behind the projection booth curtain offers promises he has no intention of keeping. She even battles her very own wicked witch, her mother who insists Pearl conform to her unflinching vision of femininity. What sets Pearl apart from Dorothy is her fury at being stuck in an unfulfilling life. This translates into a fascination with violence making her more like the wicked witch than she would perhaps like to admit. West plays with these archetypes and shows us the horror behind a fantasy world most of us have grown up with. The reason we want to venture somewhere over the rainbow is because the real black and white world we’re stuck in often feels like a nightmare.
Pearl also brilliantly parallels X, enhancing the viewing experience of an already fantastic film. Maxine and Pearl both wear signature overalls, but they are also young women determined to make their lives better. Like her mother, Pearl is stuck in a life she despises because of cultural stressors and the role she’s been forced into. She is just one link in a chain of female oppression that culminates with Maxine. They both believe they’re destined to be stars and both are determined to break out of an unfulfilling life. But the psychotic murderer in the first film has far fewer opportunities to escape the farm than her younger counterpart Maxine does. Born sixty years earlier, the backlash to Pearl’s attempts to free herself are harsh and she must choose between a life of safety and the risk of stepping out into the world on her own. We see her make this choice in Pearl, but X shows us the decades of rage she’s lived with as a result of suppressing her desire to be free.
Mia Goth gives a powerhouse performance as the unhinged Pearl. Teetering on the edge of sanity, she’s pleasant and kind, but a wide exterior smile hides darker secrets. Her Betty Boop voice and ultra southern accent feel like gimmicks at first, but the unreality of her mannerisms begin to fade into the overall ambiance of the time period. We pity Pearl because of her oversimplified persona and it’s difficult not to root for her when she finally does snap. Goth’s closing monologue is a masterclass in acting and her facial expressions over the closing credits could fuel a thousand think pieces.
Both films should be commended both for their positive views of consensual sex work and female sexuality. Given her upbringing, one might expect Pearl to have an overly puritanical view of sex and it’s a refreshing change to see her embrace her femininity without shame. Corenswet plays a cad as the projectionist, but he’s also relatable in his alternating attraction and repulsion to the new woman in his life. The scene in which he shows her a dirty movie feels like the beginning of a sexual assault and we’ve been conditioned to expect the patterns of a rape-revenge story to follow. It’s refreshing to see a consensual relationship without an upsetting power dynamic and a woman allow herself to seek freedom without being driven by the burden of trauma.
Pearl is the story of a woman pushed to the brink who finally finds the strength to push back. Despite its fantasy setting, West’s film is also honest enough to show the horrific repercussions of breaking through the boundaries arbitrarily set for women. Pearl’s smile over the closing credits ranges in emotion from joy to sadness to rage to horror. This one shot is a microcosm of the film itself, exploring the range of emotions that hide under the faux smiles of women every day. Pearl says what she wants is to be loved, but what she really wants is freedom. Being loved is simply the only way she knows how to win it.