All I want is to be loved.
A consuming rot spreads through the thick, muggy Texas air. It chews away at everything it touches. Half the country sent away to die, bloodied and torn by war while the rest stay home, slowly eaten away by disease and isolation. Psyches deteriorated by the loneliness; flesh eaten by the maggots. The fringes of civilization, alone in the hot wilderness, trapped by the collapse of the world around them, conscience flooded with familial pressures and guilt. Existing in the shadow of a country eternally battling its own consciousness, built on the marketability of sex while simultaneously demonizing our desires. These forces slowly and eternally pushing and pressurizing, seeking to crush everything beneath – it’s enough to drive a person mad.
Ti West’s Pearl is technicolor terror in the register of Pressburger and Powell, a saccharine sweet, oversaturated façade of a world where all of your dreams are promised as American birthright before you wake up and realize reality is far different from what you’ve been sold. In a world before the isolated Texas ranch descends into the grainy grit of predecessor and sleazy exploitation send-up X (2022), West’s homage to colorful ’50s melodrama embodies an entirely different tone to tell the tale of X’s deranged villain Pearl (Mia Goth). With a husband overseas fighting in the war, she’s left only with her aggressively stern German mother and her dying father, who is unable to speak and held barely together by a daily spoonful of morphine.
Pearl’s grand aspirations are all that she has, daydreams to dispel the monotony of it all, performing shows for the family’s slowly dwindling collection of farm animals and sneaking off to the cinema whenever she goes into town. The American delusion, a culture constantly selling the idea that we are destined for greater things, exploiting and mining our unhappiness for profit, driving and demanding with no end in sight. The lucky few who slip through the cracks presented as the ultimate ideal, the rest beaten down and weathered by exhaustion until kindness feels like a spit in the face, or until something begins to snap within, a crack in the foundation that will be slowly eroded until the mind is nothing but bifurcated chaos.
Pearl’s manic descent into madness is a familiar return to form for West, whose outstanding demonic slow burn The House of the Devil (2009) held palpable, spine-chilling tension through an onslaught of subverted horror tropes until its explosive, fiery climax. While Pearl is far less interested in the sheer terror of it all, West still manages to slowly crank the tension into overdrive as Pearl graduates from skewering stray farmland animals to feed to Tobe Hooper’s gator from Eaten Alive (1976) to dangling her wheelchair-bound father off the dock like a tantalizing lure. Driven by agonizing isolation and a self-proclaimed bohemian projectionist who’s little more than another sleazy pioneer of cinematic pornography, Pearl is constantly promised the world only to be kicked to the curb when the darker parts of her fractured mind shimmer through, and a clearer picture begins to form of the decades of psychosis that led to her unhinged violence in X.
Pearl is a brilliant slice of terror beneath a spellbinding and earnestly crafted homage to classic Hollywood, a wildly tonally dissonant adventure to accompany X that still feels incredibly comfortable in its own universe. It’s also an incredibly effective sales pitch to allow Ti West to craft an ever wider net of blood-soaked cinematic debauchery through the ages, without the obligation to adhere to any thematic or stylistic preconception. Mia Goth’s consistently sweet yet ever on the brink of madness performance is even more satisfyingly rich than the film’s technicolor palette, including a closing shot for the ages and haunting screams to echo through the chambers of your mind long after the film has cut to black. The American dream, contorted, corroded, and bloodied until the foundation of happiness is built upon the hacked up corpses. Maybe it’s attainable after all.