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Tyler's Takes: 'Pearl' Is A Slice Below 'X'

July 7, 2024
Tyler Banark
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Before 2022, if one were to ask who Ti West is, they’d probably not get much of a response. Until two years ago, his directorial efforts mostly consisted of low-budgeted B-rated horror movies that exclusively played outside the mainstream. That all changed when he released two interconnected horror films headlined by rising star Mia Goth: X and Pearl. The ending to the trilogy, MaXXXine, landed this past weekend, with Goth reprising her role from X. As for the first two movies, I firmly believe X to be an incredible ode to 70s slasher horror by featuring some fantastic feats both in front and behind the camera. Upon its release six months later, Pearl was believed to be the stronger outing, most notably from Goth’s more centralized performance. However, I’m here to prove that the opposite is true, with the former being the far superior entry.

Spoiler Warning: Specific story points will be mentioned

One of Pearl's most significant drawbacks is its character development—or lack thereof. The character of Pearl is portrayed mostly as one-dimensional, containing little depth or nuance to her personality. It’s a challenge to empathize with her and invest in her journey to escape the farm that she’s been tied to. The supporting characters fare no better, often feeling like mere plot devices. Pearl’s mother, Ruth, doesn’t approve of her dreams and believes there is nothing more for them than the farm. She comes off as the cliché “disapproving parent,” with the dynamic between her and Pearl often muddied. Pearl’s actions to fight back against her repression (i.e., killing the farm animals and torturing her father) don’t justify the results she desires.

Outside of her family, Pearl's lack of sanity shows in the way she interacts with other people in her life. The only vital characters in the story are Pearl’s sister-in-law, Mitsy, and the town’s movie theatre projectionist whom she befriends. She’s close with Misty, even if they aren’t overly fond of each other. Together, they audition for a traveling dance troupe and aspire for more than what their lives currently possess. While it’s never made clear if Mitsy got the part, Pearl definitely does not. Her pent-up rage from the rejection results in the film’s showstopping moment: a nine-minute monologue where Pearl confesses all her wrongdoings and deepest thoughts. While it goes to show how broken of a person Pearl is and the talent that Goth possesses as an actress, the moment doesn’t pack the necessary punch when it's delivered to Mitsy, a character whose only purpose is to die after this moment.

Through the town’s movie projectionist (our new Superman, David Corenswet), Pearl becomes introduced to A Free Ride, a film believed to be one of the first stag movies ever made. It’s in this moment where the first clear callback to X appears, with Pearl having an unclear love/hate relationship with her sexual desires. Pearl falls in love with the projectionist almost immediately, committing infidelity against her husband Howard, something the movie (and the projectionist) hardly reconcile with. Howard returns home and sees the aftermath of all the chaos that has ensued, which essentially dooms him into a loveless marriage as seen in X.

From the outset, Pearl attempts to dive into the backstory of its titular character, providing a deeper understanding of her motivations and history. However, the narrative feels disjointed in its stark differences from X. While X is an eerie ode to 70s horror, and what the decade did for the genre, Pearl becomes a dreamy melodrama attempting to be like The Wizard of Oz and 20th Century Disney movies. There are moments when it’s hard to look at Pearl through a serious lens, with unintended humor coming from beats meant with loftier ambitions. The prime example is Pearl crying out “I’m a star!” after her audition, with the repetition and accent making it into more of a meme than a moment.

While Pearl does have moments where it attempts to delve into being a different kind of horror movie, they are often overshadowed by the film's shortcomings. If, for any reason, West and Goth wanted to do Pearl all over again, I’d hope that they make Pearl out to be a good-natured character at first then have an arc where she caves into insanity. Call it my biggest problem with the movie, but there’s no denying how little of an arc she goes through. Luckily, MaXXXine doesn’t look to be going back to Pearl’s world and audiences won’t have to put up with her antics. To that, I say au revoir poor Johnny.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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