‘Pearl’ Review: Grainy, Gory, and Goth

Dir. Ti West – 3.5 Stars


Powered by Ti West’s direction and Eliot Rockett’s cinematography, “Pearl” is a film that, though filled to the brim with stunning visuals, has a cliché story. “Pearl” is the second installation of a trilogy of films, the first of which, “X,” premiered earlier this year. With familiar plot, “X” follows a group of actors who set out to make an X-rated film in rural Texas under the noses of hermitic hosts, but when the old couple finds out, the group gradually gets picked off one by one. The origin story, “Pearl,” is a slasher horror that gives a character evaluation on “X”’s villains: They are driven by old age and dead dreams.

Here, Mia Goth is once again able to demonstrate her range as an actress. In “X,” Goth played two characters: the youthful main character, Maxine, and — hidden under layers of heavy makeup and prosthetics — the frightening, old Pearl. “Pearl” aims to give a backstory to this elderly woman.

Set in the year 1918, Pearl is trapped on her family’s isolated farm, tending to her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland), and under the constant, overbearing watch of her devout and fearful mother (Tandi Wright). Lusting for the life that she’s seen on the silver screen, Pearl finds herself eager to make a name for herself and escape her family’s suffocating home. Goth’s performance is as alluring as it is frightening. Most viewers will be able to see some version of themselves within her. Wanting what you cannot have, fighting for your dreams, and the strong desire to “be loved by as many people as possible ” are common — hopefully, you aren’t a maniacal killer, though.

Goth steals the show in every scene that she’s in, giving the murderous old lady in “X” a true gut-wrenching and sometimes sympathetic backstory for viewers. The most mind-blowing scene of all is her six-minute monologue at the end of the movie to her imaginary soldier husband. With tears rushing down her cheeks, she asks, “What is wrong with me? Please just tell me so maybe I could get better … I want to be dancing up on the screens like the pretty girls in the pictures.” Here, Goth commands the attention of every viewer and leaves the theater in stunned silence.


The movie, of course, is about Pearl and no one else. No matter how good any other actor was on screen, they were never playing a well written character — rather they were pawns to give Pearl the attention she deserves and, in some ways, what the character desires.

However, this could very well be ascribing meaning to why characters were never given a story to tell. “Pearl” was co-written in two weeks while West and Goth were “quarantining in hotel rooms before traveling to New Zealand to film ‘X.’” Seeing as the script was churned out in such a short period of time, it’s logical that characters would not be fully fleshed out, dialogue lulls, content is jumbled, and tension falls flat in long chunks of the movie. The low-quality writing makes the film a difficult watch for the first hour and gives it a rushed, unfinished quality.

With that said, the visuals are what define this movie. Reminiscent of grainy, classical Hollywood cinema of the early 20th century, “Pearl” is undeniably a beautiful watch. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett not only draws inspiration from the time that Pearl is based in, but he enhances the scenes by making colors more vibrant and captivating; ultimately alluring the audience with the dreamlike quality that we associate with technicolor. Cutting through these scenes is West’s failed attempt to link “Pearl” to “X.” He constantly recycles scenes from “X” which could be seen as a stylistic choice but is overall unnecessary. Their attempts to reference themselves are unrefined. Rather than being subtle, West force feeds the original content to the viewer.

“Pearl” does not stop at its ineffective connections: It also puts a twisted spin on “The Wizard of Oz.” The Projectionist (David Corenswet) that Pearl meets one late night after a movie screening represents the tin man, and like in the original “Wizard of Oz,” the Projectionist is proper, charming, and knowledgeable. He’s traveled the world, and he seems full of life and new opportunities, but with that there is something a little peculiar, hollow, and heartless about him. The movie’s version of the scarecrow archetype is, in fact, a literal scarecrow that Pearl stumbles upon on her ride home through a cornfield. She pulls him off his stand, dances with him — bringing him to life — and makes out with him.

The cowardly lion is represented by her incapacitated father, who looks on in silent fear as his daughter rampages — murdering her mother, the projectionist, and finally smothering him to death — but is never able to say a word. Pearl’s mother represents the Wicked Witch of the West, demonstrated in her overbearing, cruel, abusive, and strict personality. Pearl’s mother acts as a villain in the story, forcing Pearl to extinguish her passions.

Through these various characters, “Pearl” is able to successfully put a gory spin on a familiar, lovable story. With horrifying undertones, the main theme still rings true from the original “Wizard of Oz:” To never stop dreaming.

To call “Pearl” a slasher film would be misleading. This is a deconstruction of “X”’s killer, who was never given any motive for murdering young people on her farm. After watching “Pearl,” it’s clear that “X” is a movie about suppressed desires and longing. If it was not for the weak references to “X” and the cliché, poor quality of the film’s writing, this could have been a fantastic standalone character study intertwined with light horror elements.