Movie Review: A Psychopath’s Origin Story — “Pearl”

“Pearl” was the aged, sex-obsessed psychopathic matriarch and villain of Ti West’s satiric, social commentary slasher picture “X.” She was played by actress Mia Goth, who also played the libidinous teen whose Texas family farm has been rented by a cut-rate crew anxious to get in on the coming porn picture boom by filming one out in the boondocks, where the locals might not approve and where all manner of farm implements and a gator are handy as their means of “censorship.”

“Pearl” is also the title of the origin story conceived during a COVID break in filming “X,” one dreamed up by the actress who played both roles back then. It’s a speculative piece of cinematic psychology that suggests how such a “monster” — isolated, old, embittered and murderous — might have come to be.

As psychology, it’s no deeper than the epilogue to Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” in which Simon Oakland “explained” how Norman Bates became “Mother,” or the few feeble attempts his shrink makes at analyzing Michael Myers in “Halloween.” It’s glib at best, wrongheaded “horror movie psychology.”

But that’s not really the point, as the idea is to take us back to Pearl’s first killing spree and show us all the creative ways she found to kill those who got in the way of her “dream” way back in 1918, when World War I was winding down, the Spanish Flu was blowing up and the movies were still new.

As young Pearl (Goth) launches into a very long and emotionally miscalculated speech explaining her hopes in life, her first clues that “something is wrong with me” and when she first started killing, I got lost remembering what grim going this whole picture has been. 

Pearl’s at home, living with her family, helping out with the farm while her husband Howard is off having an “adventure” in Europe. He’s a doughboy in France, and she can only dream of him via his letters. She’s stuck in BFE, Texas.

Pearl dreams a lot, swirling and dancing to herself in reveries that tell us she wants to be a dancer like the leggy ladies she sees in the movies — leading a chorus line, catching the spotlight. Her stern German mother (Tandi Wright) has no time for this nonsense. Her father (Matthew Sunderland) is catatonic, a burden, not a help on this farm. Pearl needs to pull her weight.

“One day, you’ll never see me again,” is Pearl’s mantra and threat — to her farm animal audience, and to her mother. “I’m special.” 

Her only relief is the periodic trip to town, at the local cinema, where she can see newsreels and movies about chorines dancing to their heart’s content in the big city. The dashing, mustachioed projectionist (David Corenswet) takes an interest. Will Pearl be tempted by his sophistication, the allure of “travel,” his after hours come-on of showing her an early “stag film” (“A Free Ride”)? 

And there’s another way out, a big dance audition for a regional touring company, to be held at “the church.” Like the movies she watches — which have synced soundtrack sound and not a piano player accompanist — this is an anachronism. But she and her curly-blonde sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro) can dream of treading the boards, can’t they?

Pearl starts making plans and plotting her exit. Those parents? They just might be in the way.

West delivers some early cinema history sight gags — Pearl riding her bike into town has a hint of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch on a bike in “The Wizard of Oz” — but very little of this sadistic “dark horror comedy” struck me as the least bit amusing.

Pearl pausing a bike ride to make out with a scarecrow, because that’s how lonely and horny she is? Hilarious.

The social satire of “X” is missing. The commentary on the culture of the day — the war, with women struggling at home while the young men are “Over There,” worries about “germs” and the flu, the easily-shattered dreams that the new entertainment form offered those who lost themselves in the movies, “pictures” or “flickers” of the day — isn’t as focused.

It’s self-indulgent and self-referential, more a humorless counterpoint to “X” than a precursor. Sure, it’s a reminder that porn has been around since the birth of cinema, and that wherever dead-end “provincial” towns can be found, there’s some frustrated Belle longing to escape. And?

“X” was about something. “Pearl,” not quite.

The real intent here is to create a showpiece for Goth as an actress and a writer. The writer scripts this long, tedious and “revealing” third act monologue of Pearl explaining herself, giving us no information we haven’t picked up already. The actress vacantly emoting her way through this “What’s wrong with me?” moment isn’t well served by it, either.

Rating: R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity.

Cast: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandy Wright, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alastair Sewell and Matthew Sunderland.

Credits: Directed by Ti West, scripted by Mia Goth and Ti West. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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2 Responses to Movie Review: A Psychopath’s Origin Story — “Pearl”

  1. M says:

    Roger you and I saw very different movies. Humorless? I laughed my ass off many times during Pearl. Like after that harrowing monologue… the cutaway to her friend. Priceless! I also cried a couple times. That’s the power of Goth’s performance. It’s at once hyper-stylized and over the top matching the classic melodrama aesthetic but it’s also uncomfortably honest about obsessive crippling ambition being the only adhesive holding an unstable dreamer together even as it tears her and everybody apart. There’s so much real pathos there but West and Goth are able to shift from heartbreaking to hilarious melodrama in seconds of the same scene. All of it intentional and very humorous.

    • Roger Moore says:

      I know he tried to get a laugh out of that cutaway after her long discourse. It didn’t land. Your use of “Uncomfortably honest” is funnier than anything in the film. Yes, this is a “type” birthed by cinematic dreaming. But she committed her first pitiless killing before the “dream” was manifest. That’s what this movie that isn’t really about anything tries to be about. I didn’t think that jelled, or that anything in this had the weight or wit of “X.” And I have a limited tolerance for murderously sadistic narcissism, unlike Ti West and the folks endorsing this tripe.

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