It was just six months ago that I saw “X”, which so far continues to be my favorite film of the year. At the end of the film was a teaser for a sequel, and lo and behold, here it is, just half a year later. Director Ti West is swinging for the fences and I approve of the effort, but this film is not an out of the park homerun like it’s predecessor. It is instead a long fly ball to center field that misses the fence but gets you standing for a couple of seconds, thrilled at the prospect if not entirely happy with the result. “Pearl” is not essential to the original story, but it is an interesting trail to follow and there are some great moments to recommend it, even if it isn’t a true gem.
West has a take on these films that I think is really interesting. He is modeling the style of the movie to the times that it is set in. This worked extremely well in the 70s based “X”, with it’s grungy porn milieu and pacing like a slow burn horror film of that decade. “Pearl” is set in 1918, and the silent films of that era are a little hard to model your film on and still use modern equipment and storytelling. This is not a silent film, but it is a melodrama with over the top moments, long pauses on a frame in anticipation of an action, and some cutesy cinematic moments to make the movie feel old fashioned. In a spot on reflection, the pandemic of Spanish flu serves as a reminder that the Covid-19 situation we find ourselves in, was not the first time that paranoia lead to extreme behavior in trying to avoid the illness.
In an isolated farmhouse, Pearl lives with a domineering mother of German descent, who frequently lapses into her native tongue when admonishing her daughter. Also in the house is her father, disabled by the pandemic in such a way as to lock him in a wheelchair and render him incapable of speech. At first Pearl seems the quintessential farm girl, talking to the cow and goat, both of which she has given names to. It doesn’t take long however to discover that there is something not quite right about her. In spite of her random moments of cruelty, we sympathize with her because the mother’s oppression seems overwhelming and Pearl does have a husband at war, who professes his love quite beautifully in letters that he writes to her from the front in Europe. Like many young women, she dreams of stardom on the screen, in her case as a dancer. Her innocent dress up and performance for animals in the barn or her mirror in the bedroom, are condemned by her mother and she is belittled for being foolish. Later in the movie, we discover that Mom has some idea of the issues that Pearl has. Did she foment those tendencies by her attitude toward Pearl, or did she develop that attitude as a result of what she saw in Pearl? We don’t quite know, but we do know it will come to a head.
The writers of this film are the director and the lead actress, and they have made some interesting choices. For instance, the friendly projectionist might be a predator or simply a man who is looking for connection as a lonely bohemian. He does not take advantage of Pearl so much as she takes advantage of him. We get foreshadowing of this in a way that also warns us again that Pearl is not necessarily stable, despite her prim demeanor at times. When the violence starts, there is no doubt that it is coming from a dark place in Pearl rather than a reaction provoked by the people she encounters. At the climax of the film, the innocent and supportive character is the target of her delusion and rage and there is no excusing it.
Over the course of the film, the techniques to mimic the era are less noticeable and successful. What seemed like a slow burn in the 70s era horror in the first film, feels like needless meandering in this melodramatic potboiler. Pearl pursues her dream with a distorted perception of the circumstances she is operating in. We don’t see all the girls that she is competing with, but we do see both her performance and her self reflection of that performance. There are fantasy inserts that might seem like they fit a late 1920s musical, but they are confusing in this story. Pearl’s imagination spills over into the real world, and I guess that is supposed to give us insight into how she is thinking, but it is an artistic choice that muddles the narrative.
Just as things are coming to a head, and you think the film will finish on a conventional note, we get served a surprise that makes the whole movie worthwhile. Actress Mia Goth has been magnetic in the role up to this point, but she suddenly becomes hypnotic. She has a six or seven minute scene that is shot in one continuous take, never cutting to another character but always focusing on her. Like the great monologue from Quint in “Jaws”, we are pulled into a confessional story that is horrifying, revealing and compelling. Mia Goth holds us in her hand the way Robert Shaw did, for a full six minutes, and we will not be able to turn away. Look, this is a horror film done on a budget without a lot of economic impact on the film business, but if the people who give acting awards don’t take some notice of Mia Goth this year, they are in essence admitting that their awards are not for performance but for politics. This scene is both heartbreaking and horrifying, and it is all on Mia Goth in her voice and face.
Nearly matching Mia Goth is actress Tandi Wright, who plays the Mother, Ruth. She is stern and frightening at times, but ultimately conveys that she is the one most frightened. The make-up, hair dressing and costumes turn her into visage of dominating truculence. She also has a moment of monologue that gives her a chance to shine. It is not as long and it is not entirely focused on her, but is is noteworthy and it is a great companion performance to Goth’s unhinged innocent.
So, “Pearl” does not reach the heights that “X” did, but it is nevertheless a worthy follow up and it leaves me looking forward to the third film in the series “Maxxxine” which will be set in the 1980s and already seems poised to get that vibe correct, based on a short teaser at the end of this film. Maybe these movies are being made for a cult audience, I guess it turns out that I am part of that cult.