In “Pearl” (2022), the second installment of Ti West’s vintage horror trilogy, we get a look into the real “farmer’s daughter.” It is a prequel to “X” (2022), which follows a group of independent adult filmmakers in the 1970s who are staying on a Texas farm to finish their film, “Farmer’s Daughter.” The group is soon subject to the murderous and sexual urges of Pearl (Mia Goth), the old lady of the farm and a homicidal sex addict. Pearl deeply mourns her youth and sexual prime, and she has no problem taking it out on the unsuspecting filmmakers. While “X” is a gory and exploitative examination of youth and sexuality, “Pearl” takes on a more subtle approach.
In “Pearl,” we are shown the origin story of the villain from “X.” Set in 1918, the film cuts to Pearl as a young woman on the very same farm during the flu pandemic. The protagonist is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to leave and become a famous dancer. Yet her dictatorial mother and severely sick father restrict her to a life of tending the family farm. Her lust for life swells against her confinement and leads to her cutting through any obstacles (quite literally).
In their collaborative writing of the film, West and Goth chronicle the death of a young girl’s dream and the resulting carnage. It’s easy to sympathize with Pearl in the beginning of the film. She has a cartoonish incandescence that charms the viewer into her corner. All she wants is to escape the drudgery of her life and make a name for herself, right? Pearl is initially reminiscent of archetypal ingenue heroines like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and Snow White. However, when she drives a pitchfork through her pet goose and gets off on a scarecrow, that illusion is quickly shattered. Slowly but steadily, we watch her nascent psychopathy grow into something monstrous. In that sense, “Pearl” is something of a twisted coming-of-age tale.
Pearl does end up making a name for herself, but perhaps more in the serial killer sense. The film rejects the slasher, grindhouse nature of its sister film and embraces a much more eerie horror technique. There is plenty of gore, but not just for the sake of it. For Pearl, each kill means getting closer to her dream of stardom. Her desperation is palpable, and she lets her resentment for anyone in her way fester into an ugly and gruesome end.
Mia Goth is superb. In her embodiment of a budding psychopath, Goth navigates an impressive emotional range. She is at once simmering and unhinged, cunning and feral. As she explores her homicidal tendencies, her endearing ‘girl next door’ façade begins to crumble, unearthing a feverish creature. The entire film is a character study of this dichotomy, depicting Pearl’s struggle between the picturesque innocence of a farmgirl and her true violent proclivities. She doesn’t take this struggle lightly, as shown in a nine-minute monologue exquisitely performed by Goth. She is equally thrilled and frightened by the changes overcoming her. All she wants is to be normal, loved even, yet her urges are simply too natural and compulsive to ignore.
West explores this dichotomy with the aesthetic of the film as well.
While “X” recalls the sun-bathed gritty appeal of ’70s cinema, “Pearl” pays homage to the romantic melodrama of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz” or early Disney films, “Pearl” rages in its technicolor intensity. It takes a fresh and vivid look into Pearl’s early life, signaling the vitality and hope of her youth. The farm, now idyllic and radiant, is positioned in stark contrast to the dilapidated mess seen in “X.” West often plays with this duality when the tone of film shifts. As Pearl’s mental stability collapses and she embraces her murderous urges, the vibrancy of the film still remains. But in the new context, the effect is lurid rather than radiant. Blood spattered on her sky-blue overalls is vivid to the point of garishness. West makes sure to maintain this fevered energy throughout all aspects of the film. The original score, composed by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, is symphonic and theatrical, typical of old Hollywood film scores. Grand yet frenzied, it fully plunges the viewer into the frequent swings of Pearl’s mood.
A common symptom of franchise films is that no single film can stand on its own. This film not only doesn’t suffer that fate, but also stands as something more unique than its predecessor. Nevertheless, in relation to “X,” “Pearl” struggles to fully contextualize the succeeding events. Many questions raised in “X” were either ignored or insufficiently fleshed out. One would think they were watching a completely unrelated movie if it weren’t for a few knowing nods and winks to the previous film. However, a couple of inside jokes does not make for an adequate prequel.
Despite its few miscalculations, “Pearl” is still worth a watch. It is rare to see a film like this nowadays that is so indulgent in the art of cinema and horror. All in all, the film is a cinematic experience in every sense.