Ti West’s X was an enjoyable, efficiently functional pastiche of 1970s slasher classics, borrowing thematically, texturally and aesthetically from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It had its own burgeoning ideas that nonetheless struggled to outrun the shadow of its pioneering predecessor. Pearl, however, sees Ti West’s cinematic universe of disenfranchised femininity expanded into something altogether more original, pointed and disquieting.
In X, the murderous Pearl was the mirror image of Mia Goth’s Maxine, an uncanny prophecy heralding the fate that Maxine’s blind obsession with fame and sex symbolism may lead her to (a fate that will no doubt be elucidated in the franchise’s next instalment, MaXXXine, currently in pre-production). The uncanny valley was deepened by the actress’s dual performances as Maxine and Pearl, seamlessly donning the prosthetics for the portrayal of the latter with the dexterity that Jared Leto could only dream of. Goth, however, sheds the nightgown chic for Pearl, offering a barnstorming central performance in the title character’s origin story.
We enter into the familiar setting of the Texan farmhouse that played host to X’s ensemble of pornographers and resident murderers, only it’s crisper in its 1918 glory. Pearl is a young woman whose husband is deployed overseas as the first world war winds to its bloody conclusion, leaving her alone on the farm with her stern mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and paralysed father (Matthew Sunderland). A stoic German-Texan, Ruth lives her life and runs her family by a code of self-reliance and scrupulous efficiency, leading to her scorning Pearl’s trips to the movie theatre and dreams of transcending the farm to a life of stardom. There is a trace of We Need to Talk About Kevin in Pearl’s relationship with her mother (the young girl’s predisposition towards harming the farm’s animals frightens Ruth) and more than an echo of Hitchcock’s Psycho, enriching the tapestry of West’s homage to the history of slasher movies and summoning the influence of the genre’s 1960 ground zero.
But Pearl is very much its own beast, influenced by the genre’s past but not manacled by it. One of the reasons the film is arguably superior to its source is that it has the focus that X’s strict adherence to slasher convention didn’t allow. Pearl instead uses these tropes as dressing for the psychological character study at its centre, one that has the legacy of Travis Bickle’s cracked seams nestled somewhere in its fibres. It is, however, a feature that absolutely belongs in 2023, as opposed to the history it invokes. The background contexts of war and pandemic-induced hysteria feel strangely prescient, while the juxtaposed humour, delivered with a postmodern zeal, never disrupts, but slots neatly into the mania of West and Goth’s universe – a universe that promises more to delve into again.
Pearl is released nationwide on 17th March 2023.
Watch the trailer for Pearl here: