Pearl is a Bloody, Demented Wizard of Oz Prequel

Pearl works and it doesn’t, which is an odd thing to say about a prequel. Earlier this year, Ti West wrote and directed the 1970s-inspired slasher X. That film was supposed to harken back to the time of the video-nasty era of pornography that exploded with the technology of the at-home video camera. Suddenly, anyone could be a movie star if they could afford a camera. While Pearl takes the viewers back in time to 1918, this prequel manages to build on the obsession of becoming a star that was so prevalent in X.

In X, a film crew arrives on an old farm run by an elderly couple (Stephen Ure and Mia Goth in prosthetics) to shoot a porno. The elderly couple finds out what the crew is getting up to on their property, and all of a sudden there’s a bloody free-for-all. Pearl is centered on the elderly wife, Pearl (Goth without prosthetics), from X as a young twenty-something woman living on the same farm. She lives with her mother (Tandi Wright) and father (Matthew Sunderland) but takes on most of the chores to keep the farm up and running. Her father is ill from the Spanish flu and can’t do anything for himself, while Pearl’s mother is overly controlling. Pearl is married to a man named Howard (Alistair Sewell) who was supposed to take her far away from life on the farm, but instead signed up to fight in the war. Pearl has bigger dreams than living on this farm for the rest of her life. She believes she’s a star and that she will become famous. Whatever it takes.

Pearl lit by a single spotlight on stage

The reason Pearl fails as a prequel is that the film doesn’t truly bridge any gap or make any sense of Pearl’s actions in X. The Pearl in X is a recluse who’s rarely seen until the last third of the movie. Aside from the same setting and the same actor (although Goth is entirely unrecognizable in the old-lady prosthetics in X), there’s very little that actually ties the two films together. People in the audience will point fingers and choose sides about whether it was X or Pearl that dropped the ball in terms of relating to the other, but it’s a meaningless argument. Those who liked X will likely be disappointed with Pearl’s limited, but still gruesome, kills. Those who weren’t a fan of X will potentially be swayed by Pearl’s pivot to more of a character study with some bloody action along the way.

For what it’s worth, it is X that feels like the weaker link. It was all style with very little substance. It can be said that West actively chose to have less substance in X because it was supposed to mirror the thriving porn industry, where plot was secondary, or even tertiary, to the sex scenes. The problem is that when compared to Pearl, X feels too simplistic. The ending of Pearl also feels truncated because it tries to serve the narrative that was presented to audiences in X. It’s disappointing that Pearl was limited by the fact that the audience barely got to know the character Pearl in X.

Pearl standing with a hatchet with a finger pressed to her lips

Where Pearl succeeds is in the depth of humanity Goth is able to infuse into Pearl. It’s clear that Goth’s efforts elevated the vision of what West had planned. Pearl’s rage and murderous tendencies are amplified, but understandable. She often cries about how something must be wrong with her because the thought of conforming to a life she cannot stand is the worst outcome she can imagine. It’s a feeling, an undercurrent of rage, that is all too familiar to any person who has been pushed into a box that will not fit them.

Pearl is about wanting something. For Pearl, she is desperate to be a star, to have a name in lights, and to see herself on the silver screen. She is obsessive about her dreams in a time of American society when women’s desires were not allowed to be vocalized. These dreams were follies, daydreams, meant to be forgotten in the name of being a homemaker. Pearl cannot stand the thought of reducing her life to the smallness of the farm. As the film winds its way to ending, with a mesmerizing six-minute monologue by Goth, Pearl must reckon with the ideals she fought so adamantly against. In many ways, her journey mimics that of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. With a little more blood spatter than glittery shoes.

Pearl stands with a pitchfork over her head

Stylistically, West has created a brand new world. Where X was grainy, Pearl is technicolor, bright as can be. The color scheme of a Disney movie with the body count of something far nastier. West, also the film’s editor, utilized wipe transitions and other editing choices of yesteryear. The audience feels as though they’ve been transported to a different time period. The same way Pearl is falling in love with the newfangled motion pictures, the audience can feel themselves becoming enraptured with the art of films.

Pearl is a bit of an uncharacteristic left turn for what will soon become a trilogy with the release of MaXXXine in the near future. Less interested in gore and good times, Pearl is a story of desire and the lengths people will go to get what they think they want.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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