The determined young daughter of German immigrant parents living on a Texas farm in 1918 chases her big dreams of becoming a movie star in the new slasher “Pearl,” released in theaters Sept. 16. Her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), is off in Europe fighting in the first World War, and her rigid mother (Tandi Wright) refuses to let Pearl (Mia Goth) be anything but a caretaker to the farm and her catatonic father (Matthew Sunderland). Fed up with her mundane life on the farm, Pearl lusts for a more glamorous lifestyle, so what else could she do but kill her parents and anyone else who stands in the way of her dreams of making it onto the big screen? The movie is the prequel to “X,” the slasher film released in March of this year in which Pearl is also an antagonist.
In a bizarre scene from the peculiar mind of director Ti West, the film opens with an entranced Goth dancing slowly to a sappy cinematic score. Part “Wizard of Oz” and part “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Pearl” is an outstanding work that takes sentimental Hollywood cliches and perverts them, turning them into a murderously gory fever dream. The numerous allusions to “The Wizard of Oz,” most obvious in Pearl’s prolonged dance scene with a scarecrow, compares Pearl with the film’s iconic character Dorothy. In many ways, Pearl is Dorothy, stuck on a farm and pining for a faraway land. She’s so full of youthful hope audiences can’t help but relate to her, even in her most evil moments, which is what makes her such a wonderful character.
“Pearl” feels like a metaphor for the familiar uncomfortable experiences of growing into adulthood. We all want to break free of our past and carve out an identity for ourselves. Hopefully, that identity makes us memorable in some way, if not turns us into stars. Pearl kills her parents, but these deaths aren’t treated like the typical slasher peeking-through-your-fingers gorefest. We don’t even see Pearl kill her father; the shot pans away from the pair when she begins to strangle him. The murders are raw and emotional and not easy for Pearl to execute—nor the audience to watch—but this is what makes the killings so great. “Pearl” isn’t a movie about a masked killer terrorizing a group of people, like in other famous slashers such as “Halloween”; instead, it is about a young woman who feels she is destined for more than toiling endlessly on a farm. But, unintentionally and perhaps inevitably, in Pearl’s quest for something different, she becomes even more entrenched in the farm, achieving the very fate she despised most.
“Pearl” simply wouldn’t work without actress Mia Goth, the heart of the film. Her character appears in almost every shot of this movie, and it might have been easy for audiences to tire of the character, if not for Goth’s ability to make Pearl intensely complex. Goth brings a quiet tenderness to the moments between Pearl and her father and an intense animalistic frustration and anger in the moments when she realizes her dreams have turned to ashes.
In one particularly memorable scene, Pearl confesses all her murders to her sister-in-law. Filmed in one long take, the camera focuses solely on Pearl, drawing out a rawness and intimacy compounded by Goth’s incredible face acting. Goth’s acting turns what could have been a relatively boring shot into a magnetic study of Pearl’s inner psyche.
“Pearl” is a stunning companion to “X.” Building off themes of loss of youth and the necessity of escaping one’s past, the film delves even deeper into the human at the center of these two stories. The two films balance each other out: “X” is a classic slasher, but “Pearl” isn’t frightening in the same gory, jump scare kind of way. It is deeper, more emotional and full of shockingly tender moments. The scares in “Pearl” come not from the murders but from Pearl’s failure to escape the confinement of her family’s farm. This existential terror perfectly compliments the bodily slasher horror of “X” and presents a contrast that complicates the film’s characters and themes.
At first, “Pearl” may seem familiar to viewers who recognize the cinematic tropes of the other genres and films the movie references. Still, it remains entirely original and unique in the way it shatters all expectations. “Pearl” further confirms my belief that we are truly in the middle of a horror renaissance.