The film therefore serves as the remedy for Pearl’s unfulfilled aspirations, a manifestation of the powerful stage presence she never got the opportunity to showcase, shedding light on a slasher villain who will go on to define the genre through a performance that will likely, in turn, define Goth’s career.
Slasher films have come to walk the thin line between terrible and cult classic, finding niche fanbases amongst filmgoers who appreciate the art of the genre, even despite its characteristic cliches. From the final girl, to the jump scares, to the idea that premarital sex leads to death, slasher films often deliver plots that are exactly what audiences expected them to be.
Ti West’s latest film, and newest instalment in his Mia Goth-led Maxine trilogy, does precisely the opposite. Set in 1918, Pearl (2022) tells the backstory of X (2022) killer, Pearl, delving into her quest for stardom and her murderous descent into madness. Stuck living with her overbearing mother and ill father, Pearl’s resentment stemming from a desire for a life unlived festers at her isolated family farm, longing for the return of her husband from war and holding out hope for the kind of life she’s only seen in films.
Whilst the film’s prequel status provides viewers with certain expectations, the delectable slow burn and Goth’s Oscar-worthy performance sets it apart from more laughable slashers, cultivating a thoughtful twist on slasher cinema and bringing a heightened feminism to the genre (likely aided by Goth’s part in writing the script). Yet, from the very outset, the film is sure to pay tribute to those that came before. Goth’s Pearl evokes a more demonic, yet similarly childlike Dorothy, stumbling down the yellow brick road and longing to be freed from the colourless shackles of Kansas. This nostalgia is furthered by the film’s references to old Hollywood, in its grand title cards and technicolor visuals.
Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams’ score also gives the film a certain whimsy, withdrawing from the darkness and grit attached to slashers. Instead, their soundtrack imbues the film with an unsettling dissonance–as viewers watch Pearl crush a chicken foetus or have sex with a scarecrow (something that definitely wasn't in The Wizard of Oz), but in a fun way.
And while the film echoes the voyeurism West flirts with in X, Pearl more explicitly confronts viewers with the limits of their own morality, using X’s questions of sexual freedom as a launch pad for a more unsettling portrayal of sexuality and ambition. Whether it’s her violent foreplay with the aforementioned scarecrow, her infidelity or her questionable nakedness around her father. In doing so, West pushes the limits of how much a viewer can accept from a lead while still rooting for them. And as the end credits start rolling, and you can’t help but pity the woman before you with her forced smile and silent tears, it becomes painfully clear this is a difficult balance West has managed to achieve.
In striking this balance, West cultivates a believable narrative for X’s chief villain, one which incorporates the tragic humanity and ruthlessness audiences have come to know and love. With lines like “I’m worried there may be something real wrong with me,” Pearl’s self awareness makes her a complicated character. But despite her moral ambiguity, she is ultimately a character who’s impossible not to love, or at least grow incredibly intrigued by. And much like the whimsical score transports viewers away from the unsettling theatrics before them and into Pearl’s own fantastical dreamscape, the use of close-up during Pearl’s lengthy monologue towards the end of the film forces them to sit in the discomfort of her confessions and listen.
In moments like her concluding monologue or her highly-anticipated dance audition, her star quality is given the chance to shine once and for all. The film therefore serves as the remedy for Pearl’s unfulfilled aspirations, a manifestation of the powerful stage presence she never got the opportunity to showcase, shedding light on a slasher villain who will go on to define the genre through a performance that will likely, in turn, define Goth’s career.
Pearl hits Australian cinemas on March 16.