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Nathan Weinbender reviews " Pearl"

In March of this year, writer-director Ti West released X, a weird, wild, extremely bloody tribute to the golden age of slasher films. A little over six months later, and we have a second movie in the X franchise: Pearl, an origin story of one of the killers in X, played by Mia Goth. A third film, a direct sequel to X titled Maxxxine, is already in production.

I didn’t think X was the sort of movie that needed a rich cinematic universe, but Pearl revisits the original film’s themes of sexual repression and mental degradation and shoots them through a more focused human lens. It’s not only a better movie than X, but it makes the earlier movie more interesting in retrospect.

X, you may recall, was about a 1970s porn film crew who rented an isolated Texas farmhouse and were killed off by the weird elderly couple who lived next door. We’re back at that same farm for this prequel, except now it’s 1918, and the murderous old woman, Pearl, is 60 years younger. But she’s no less isolated: It’s the height of the flu pandemic, and Pearl doesn’t receive visitors for months at a time. Her husband is off fighting in the Great War with no word of his return. She takes care of her paralyzed father while her staunch German mother tries to tighten Pearl’s already short leash.

Pearl’s only escape is at the movies, where she imagines herself up there on the screen and fantasizes about the handsome projectionist who shows her stag films after hours. When she hears that a big-time Hollywood producer is coming to town and holding auditions for his latest picture, Pearl sees it as her ticket to a life of glamor and independence.

If you haven’t already seen X, this sounds like your standard small-town melodrama. But Pearl, of course, turned murdering into a full-time hobby by the time she hit her 80s, and an opening scene in which her younger self does unspeakable things to a defenseless goose tells us bloodlust wasn’t something she aged into.

Although Pearl is set in the era of the silents, West’s visual approach recalls The Wizard of Oz and Busby Berkely musicals, and cinematographer Eliot Rockett’s rich, oversaturated color palette approximates the old three-strip Technicolor process. This style provides a glimpse into Pearl’s own cracked imagination, which is totally at odds with a story (credited to West and Goth) that’s more in line with psychological thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s about women violently lashing out at a society that attempted to hide them away.

Looking back at my review of X, I spent a lot of time talking about its style, its themes, and all the other horror films West was explicitly referencing. And I mentioned the actors but not their acting. In writing about Pearl, it’d be impossible to overlook Mia Goth, whose performance here is a true revelation.

The film culminates in a breathless monologue in which the titular character unloads all her frustrations and desires, giving voice to the strange compulsions that have led to several bodies being strewn about the family homestead. It’s delivered in a single take that must go on for six or seven minutes but feels longer, never moving from Goth’s tear-streaked face. She’s in another extended close-up that plays out over the movie’s end credits; again, the shot goes on and on and on, and it’s creepy, then funny, then tragic, and back to creepy again.

X and Pearl is an exciting, grisly one-two punch, and I can’t wait to see what Ti West and Mia Goth dream up next time.

Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.