Those who saw Ti West‘s X just earlier this year were treated to a special surprise in the post-credits: a trailer for a prequel film! Banking on the talent of Mia Goth to fuel interest, who pulls off a fantastic double performance in X as both young protagonist Maxxxine and the elderly antagonist Pearl, West and his financers took a chance and he filmed his prequel nearly simultaneously with X. Now half a year later, Pearl releases to tell the origin story of the killer older woman who dreamed of being a star and adored.
Set in 1918 rural Texas, Goth’s turn as Pearl is magnetic. All the hints of what were interesting about the character in X are on full display here. Her seductive turn between being innocent and hopeful and also being depressive, murderous, and jealous make for a masterclass performance. With the first World War and the Spanish flu looming over the film, Pearl is a character trapped on Texas farm with a German mother, dreaming of a better life and escaping her own mother’s brooding hardness, formed by the presumed harshness of her own life circumstances and by anti-German prejudice, whether real or imagined.
The script and Goth’s performance accomplish the remarkable feat of building sympathy, and maybe even empathy, for a character who is a clear sociopath. It is also a testament to West’s decisions as a filmmaker. His ample use of long takes of Goth’s performance, including one take in the closing 20 minutes of the film, allow you to build that sympathy as we follow Goth through a tumultuous tide of emotions, with anger dashing and tears falling across her face in turn.
Many of the scenes in the film play out in a similar manner. Though there is some intentionality to this in showing Pearl’s behavior as understandable, yet completely flawed and broken and lacking in human empathy, it does feel like the film runs out of interesting ways to make the same point. Some of Pearl’s decisions also seem more than a little random, as though the script couldn’t figure out the connective tissue to get us from some scenes to others.
But West’s filmmaking more than compensates for those flaws. In a lovely callback to earlier cinema, the film basks in bright beautiful colors as Pearl pleasantly bikes into town. The cornfields are brilliant and cheery, as is the idyllic little Texas town where Pearl gets supplies. She also dresses in outfits that seem to callback to The Wizard of Oz, evoking both Dorothy and Elvira Gulch (i.e. the Wicked Witch) in equal measure. This celebration of the seductive power of dreams and the damnation it seems to bring Pearl in the end subtly add to the cinematic conversation on Hollywood as a siren’s promise of fame and success. Another excellent vignette in this film is a long wide shot of a character fleeing the farm as Pearl slowly walks out of the house. The uncertainty about whether Pearl is about turn violent, and Pearl’s slow, deliberate movements, makes for one of the best scenes in cinema this year.
Pearl wisely avoids becoming too over-laden with prequel-style references to the first film. Certainly, we mostly learn how Pearl wound up being at the farm from X. We also point to some of the most memorable bits from X and how they began. But this never feels overdone, and Pearl stands on its own two feet as a film.
Two entries into a promised trilogy, Ti West’s X series demonstrates a wise combination of callback to classic cinema and horror, and a wonderful rumination on what it means to be adored and our human need for adoration. Pearl adds to that conversation wonderfully with Mia Goth continuing to dazzle in artistic partnership with West as one of the most empathetic violent killers we’ve seen. She’s a character who wants so desperately to have genuine love and relationships, but keeps ruining every chance she has at it due to her inner sickness. Just how much of that sickness is psychology, circumstance, or the rot of jealousy within her the film leaves satisfyingly unanswered, and this allows Pearl to enter the annals of celebrated horror cinema characters.