PEARL delivers an Audacious and Unflinching Character Study

Ti West presents a prequel to this year’s slasher film ‘X.’

Pearl is the prequel to Ti West’s triumphant return to big screen horror, X, and after checking out the trailer, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The film was written by West and star Mia Goth and filmed in New Zealand at the same as X, serving as the origin story for Goth’s character: the axe-wielding, alligator feeding matriach of the couple that makes short work of our wannabe porn stars in X.

Set in 1918, we meet Pearl all alone, abandoned on her German family’s farm some time after her husband has left to fight in World War I. Stuck with her conservative mother and her parapalegic father, Pearl wants nothing more than to escape and be a star in the pictures. When she finds out about an audition to join a touring dance troupe, she sees it as her big ticket out and will stop at absolutely nothing to get the part—including murder.

Equal parts Wizard of Oz, American Psycho, and Repulsion, the film unfolds from within Pearl’s technicolor-drenched consciousness as she descends into madness. Think of Pearl as an entire film akin to the sequence in Birds of Prey with Harley Quinn’s Marilyn Monroe-esque escapist inner daydream. Keeping with that early 20th century aesthetic, the film is rather deliberately paced and conservative in nature compared to X, while still delivering the expected kills. I could almost picture a grittier black-and-white version of this film transpiring in “real life” as opposed to the idealized version we see play out.

Pearl is also the rare sequel that’s not purely reactionary—it’s not made to capitalize on what sold the original or what resonated with fans, but is the story West and Goth wanted to tell, exactly how they wanted to tell it. They imbue this film less with exploitation of its premise than with exploration of its character.

That being the case, it’s easy to tell this is a film co-written by the star, given that it’s the kind of role any actor would cherish. We witness not only Pearl’s dizzying highs, but her earth-shattering lows in an utterly jaw-dropping performance that goes very hard. Goth imbues Pearl with an almost unheard of depth and sadness that will make you feel legitimate empathy for this creature that is harboring an unawakened evil. West assists in presenting Goth’s performance, warts in all, in long single takes that are grueling, disarming, and purely chaotic. So much time is spent allowing Goth to really dig into the character’s twisted engine, giving a painfully transparent look into her fractured personae.

While those looking to delve back into the pure sleaze and madness that was X might be disappointed by this more understated character study, Pearl is the rare sequel that exists purely because the makers had more story to tell. There is no way you can watch Pearl and not at least appreciate Goth’s performance and the lengths to which she pushes herself in the role. Pearl is a delightfully horrific peak into the mind of a killer that’s as unwavering as it is shockingly sympathetic to our protagonist. Goth gives a career-defining performance while West proves he most definitely hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to horror—and from the newest trailer that just dropped, it seems their story is long from over.

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