"Pearl" a vibrant, delightfully twisted prequel to "X"

Pearl (2022)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe aside, it’s very rare we get two new movies connected to each other in the same calendar year. A bigger miracle is that writer-director Ti West’s “Pearl,” the jointly shot prequel to his impeccably crafted, shockingly violent, and thoughtful slasher film “X,” spoils us by being just as impressive and special. Co-writing the script with West, Mia Goth returns as the titular Pearl, the younger version of the aspiring star whose broken dreams turned her into a murderess, to give us a 1918-set origin story. As such, “Pearl” is a gloriously twisted delight if a sunny, color-saturated Disney movie from the classic era was born with more than a few screws loose. 

Sixty-one years before that “Plowing Service” van pulled into the old Texas couple’s Powder Keg Farms to shoot their narrative-driven skin flick, Pearl (one of two roles played by Mia Goth in “X”) was just a girl with big, over-the-rainbow dreams — and delusions of grandeur. As her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) went off to war, she stayed back on her parents’ farm to take care of her invalid daddy (Matthew Sunderland) with her strict German mama (Tandi Wright). Pearl’s dreams of being a dancer, just like all the pretty girls in the pictures, have only been a dream, until she goes into town for Daddy’s medicine and stops by the movie theater. There, she meets a hunky projectionist (David Corenswet), who gives her attention and introduces her to “illegal” cinema (porn). Later, Pearl is encouraged by her sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) to audition for the local church’s Christmas chorus line. Of course, Pearl can’t miss it, and she needs to be perfect. And she needs to get out of this godforsaken town. And, if anyone gets in her way, they will be very, very sorry.

While “X” was a homage to both ‘70s slasher flicks and the making of movies (porn or otherwise), “Pearl” is distinctly different, a very loving and knowing ode to the magic of Technicolor motion pictures with the innards of a character study. Much more than a rushed-out genre novelty, this focused portrait of madness really does look and feel like an exquisitely made relic of its own era, complete with dramatic cursive for the title font and use of wipe and iris transitions. Ti West (and most of his behind-the-scenes creative team from “X”) bring that same special sauce to their note-perfect production without it being reduced to hollow, studied pastiche (although the well-placed visual cues to “The Wizard of Oz” are a treat). Between Eliot Rockett’s vibrant but textured cinematography, Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ sweeping orchestral score, and Malgosia Turzanska’s eye-popping costume design, everyone is sincerely in on the “joke” without the film ever becoming a full-on parody. It’s like the “Far from Heaven” of mad slasher movies, only played with a tone of cheerful, starry-eyed insanity. Also, being set during the Spanish Flu, the film does incorporate a timely feeling of paranoia that still resists distraction (Pearl wears a mask when going into town, and her projectionist love interest even states how he can never tell who is who anymore with the masks). 

“Pearl” can exist on its own but rewards as a companion piece to “X” that informs what made Pearl become a homicidal Dorothy Gale. Is Pearl just misunderstood, or is she mentally unwell? Or, does she just want more out of life? Well, all three are correct here. We not only get to see her dreams of being a star in the spotlight but also her gnarly experience with a pitchfork, her sexual awakening, and her dear friendship with nearby gator Theda. The narrative follows an inevitable path that’s still never deflated with welcome dark humor offsetting the tension, gruesome slashes, and an overall troubled heart.

All of the performances do what they need to do. Tandi Wright is chilling in Margaret White mode as Pearl’s mother Ruth; Matthew Sunderland is eventually heartbreaking as Pearl’s daddy without ever speaking a word; David Corenswet is very dashing as the desirable projectionist; and newcomer Emma Jenkins-Purro makes a mark, pricelessly amusing with her reactions and lack of reactions as Pearl’s perky sister-in-law Misty. But Mia Goth is the star, of course, just as how Pearl sees herself with the X-factor. 

Goth is just tremendous, capturing the doe-eyed charm, the curiosity, and the violent capabilities of Pearl. She’s fearless when it comes to a perverse duet with a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield and wielding an axe as well as Joan Crawford in 1964's “Strait-Jacket.” Above all, Goth finds genuine feeling and throws every ounce of commitment into embodying this smiling but tragic, unhinged soul with a sliver of sympathy. Her unbroken “cry for help” confession at her kitchen table is a masterclass in cinematic monologues, and just wait until an indelible extended take that isn’t even a freeze frame during the end credits. Choosing which film is better (this or “X”) is like choosing your favorite child, but “Pearl” is unusually funny, wonderfully cracked, and just plain wonderful. You won’t forget her name. Or that smile.

Grade: A -

A24 is releasing “Pearl” (102 min.) in theaters on September 16, 2022.