After not making a horror movie for nearly a decade, Ti West returned this year with not one, but two horror films, X, which debuted at SXSW, and now Pearl, a prequel to his 70s grindhouse homage. Mia Goth stars in both, but it’s her performance in Pearl that truly deserves accolades. She co-wrote the film with West and gives the scream queen performance of the year, playing a wannabe starlet with a fragile psyche. The more Pearl’s dream of stardom slips away, the higher the body count.
Comparing the two films isn’t fair. They’re very different stylistically and thematically. However, Pearl feels like a blood-soaked inversion of the American dream, from the way it’s shot, to Goth’s tragic performance, giving birth to what should be a new horror icon. Here, the best of West’s abilities are on full display.
Pearl Is a True Technicolor Nightmare
According to a recent interview with MovieMaker, West initially wanted to shoot the film in black and white, since it’s set in 1918. Why not a German Expressionist aesthetic to match the era? However, the bigwigs at A24 talked him out of it, since they had a slew of recent black & white films. So instead, West opted for technicolor. The word refers to motion-picture processes, going back to 1916, resulting in ultra vibrant but not very realistic looking colors. The Wizard of Oz is undoubtedly the most well-known technicolor classic. Everyone knows its color palate, especially the explosive ruby red slippers and Dorothy’s blue dress.
Pearl’s first act especially feels like a nod to the Wizard of Oz, but a much darker version of it. Pearl, like Dorothy, is a farm girl in middle America who dreams of something more. Her parents are German immigrants. Her dad (Matthew Sunderland) is ill and wheelchair-bound, while her mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), is as domineering as Norma Bates. She constantly shoots down Pearl’s ambitions and even tells her that she’ll surely fail a dance audition, which is Pearl’s big shot to tour the state and potentially the country.
The twisted nods to the Wizard of Oz even include a scarecrow that has the same exact colors as the classic film’s character. Its cameo is also one of the strangest sexual scenes that I’ve seen in a long, long time. More importantly, the technicolor creates an artifice that underscores Pearl’s fantasies. She refuses to accept reality and constantly daydreams of being on stage or in the pictures. No matter how much her mom tries to thwart her ambitions, she’s certain she’s destined to be the next big star.
Her drive increases after she meets a bohemian projectionist, played by David Corenswet. He’s the one who plants a seed that Pearl can leave the farm. He also speaks of taking her to Europe, where “real art” happens. Yet, it’s questionable whether or not he actually cares about Pearl or just wants a one-night stand. Again, Pearl’s ambitions blind her to that likely reality.
Pearl as an Inversion of the American Dream
Pearl’s technicolor and cinematography make it stand out, but so do its themes. This feels like West’s meatiest film yet, a grisly inversion of the American dream. Pearl believes that anyone in America can make it. Her, mother, however, isn’t so sure. While Goth carries the film, Wright also turns in one heck of a performance. At one point, she breaks down, admitting that she never thought she’d have to take care of her husband like a mother.
In another harrowing scene, Pearl hears her crying at night. Mom also tells her daughter to focus on what she has, and she’ll be happier. This is a stark, well-written character whose dreams have been dashed. She’s forced to deal with reality before her, bound to her frail husband and the farm. Further, she also points out that not many are kind to German immigrants. This is the WWI era, after all.
Contrasted with this is the blue-eyed, blonde-haired sister-in-law, Misty, played by Emma Jenkins-Purro. It seems like everything comes easy to her. When Pearl and Misty compete for the one spot in a dance troupe, it’s pretty clear who’s going to get the break. These characters make for a striking contrast, dueling versions of the American dream. Misty doesn’t face any of the challenges that Pearl does.
The inversion of the American dream is made the most evident when Pearl re-creates a Texas Chainsaw-like dinner scene, placing the corpses of her mom and dad at the table, with maggot-covered food. I’d be hard-pressed to find a better visual metaphor for a failed American dream than this. It’s the American family left to rot. Meanwhile, Pearl’s husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), ditched her to go off and fight in WWI. She also notes that she always knew he could leave the farm if he wanted. He has access to a sort of privilege that she doesn’t.
Pearl as Product of the Environment
Unlike the Wizard of Oz, it’s clear pretty early on that Pearl can’t just click her ruby slippers and escape to somewhere better. It makes you wonder if she would have snapped and gone on a killing spree had she been raised in different circumstances or had the looks of her sister-in-law. As Goth said in an interview, “Had she grown up in a different time, possibly with different parents that were more supportive, encouraging, I don’t believe that she would’ve gone down the route that she goes on and that’s really what helped me empathize with her as a character, really. She’s not just this cold-blooded killer. She’s really just making the best of what she has.”
While Pearl has plenty of kills and stylish bloodshed, this is a much more character-driven film than X. Goth truly gives a jaw-dropping performance, especially her manic facial expressions and one particular monologue she gives in the last act. This is an example of a film where nearly everything clicks to make a bold statement about the American dream and the thirst for stardom. Next up is MaXXXine, the conclusion of West’s X trilogy. This one will be set in the mid-1980s in LA. Goth will star and co-write again. Oh boy!
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.