When X dropped earlier this year, none of us expected that a new slasher icon would be born. None of us expected that a little old lady would be taking her place alongside Freddy and Jason. None of us expected that this little old lady would be played by the same actress as the final girl. None of us expected that it would be the beginning of a trilogy. None of us expected that the prequel had already been completed. None of us expected either film to be IMMEDIATELY ICONIC.
God bless Ti West for making all of these dreams come true.
But West’s creation would not have as much life as it does without the talent at the center, namely Mia Goth, who reprises half of her roles from X as Pearl, the starry-eyed tinseltown wannabe who is doomed to live out her days on a shitty farm with little chance of being noticed by anyone at all (except, of course, Peter, her pet alligator).
Pearl ditches the grimy ‘70s lens of X, instead giving us the Technicolor palette of The Wizard of Oz. This lens is via our titular unreliable narrator, who spends her days struggling under the cruel thumb of her no nonsense, religious mother. It’s 1918, and a pandemic has caused everyone to retreat into a social bubble, pinching their purse strings in order to survive. Pearl’s father is wheelchair bound and catatonic, ostensibly a victim of the offending flu, and her mother is responsible for keeping everyone alive and fed. This causes friction between she and Pearl, especially with the latter’s frequent flights of distracted fancy (a notable scene in which she…has her way with a scarecrow is simultaneously gorgeous and horrifying — much like Pearl herself).
“It has to be me,” states an obsessed Pearl as she waits in line to audition for a locally-touring dance group. The determined dreamer sees this as her only avenue of escape from her repressed existence, and as we already know from X, it’s Pearl’s way or no way at all. Why leap a hurdle when you can cut it down with an axe?
Goth is downright brilliant in her role, giving us a version of Pearl who is as easy to pity as she is to fear. Her motives are innocent enough, but her methods are downright fatal. To this end, writer/director Ti West gives us a less explicit view of violence as he did in X, but it’s no less effective (and still quite gory). Yet it’s not the moments of violence that end up sticking in the brain — it’s the visage of Pearl herself, smiling under a crumbling facade of normalcy, and doing so in a setting that makes it hard to blame her for wanting something more from life.
Much like the previous film, Pearl is overflowing with colorful, well realized supporting characters. Most notable are Tandi Wright and Matthew Sunderland as Pearl’s doomed parents. Wright could have easily yoinked from Carrie’s bag of tricks to create an oppressive, religious mother, and had she done so it would’ve played just fine. Instead, she gives us a character whose pathos is as much rooted in her role as Pearl’s mother as Pearl’s issues are rooted in her mother’s domineering ways. It’s a destructive relationship on a two way street paved in strong motivations.
Such is the magic of conceiving a prequel alongside the original film. So often prequels are tasked with building pre-existing characters from the top down, and the results show. That’s very much not the case here. In just two movies I already know more about Pearl than I do Michael Myers (and frankly, the less you know about the latter, the better), and none of it feels like tacked-on Cult of Thorn dead weight (no love lost to the Cult of Thorn, which I love even though it blows).
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Pearl is the fact that despite its immediate connection to the preceding film, it would still work quite well in a vacuum. You don’t need X in order to follow it, just as X doesn’t need Pearl in order to feel complete. That the two films complement each other so well is a testament to the writing of both. Each thrives as well alone as they do alongside the other, and it doesn’t matter which one you watch first.