The marketing behind Pearl is all wrong. We see images of the titular character played by Mia Goth with a pitchfork and an axe looking all pompous like Negan with his bat from The Walking Dead. And it’s just terrible. This isn’t a movie about some holly-jolly young woman who enjoys killing. It’s about a young woman stuck in a environment that is destroying her to the point she turns crazy.
The movie was shot at the same time Ti West was making his more 1970s porno/slasher homage X, which didn’t have many thrills but seemed more like a meta-horror. I posted that West seemed to be too busy nudging us to remind us what every scene was a reference to. In that movie, Pearl (played by Goth behind a lot of make-up) was an elderly woman who kills people who have rented another house on the rural Texas property to shoot a porno. Pearl functions more as the origin story as it’s set in 1918 rural Texas during the influenza pandemic. Pearl is married to her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell) who’s off serving in World War I.
Pearl is stuck on the family farm under the watchful eye of her over-controlling mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright in a great role), who makes Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like June Cleaver. Wright, a New Zealander, was the intimacy coordinator on X, and she speaks in a strict German accent, that reminds me of the brutal Mother Superior played by Lilyan Chauvin in Silent Night, Deadly Night. Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is ill and invalid, mostly unabled to move and sits in a wheelchair. Every now and again, he’ll move his eyes or lips to show he’s still alive.
Pearl seems to exhibit her violent tendancies early on when she picks up a pitchfork and begins to dance in a barn but a goose walks in. She kills it and feeds it to an alligator down by the lake. Ruth doesn’t care for Pearl’s behavior and is a constant emotional abuser, at one point taking away Ruth’s supper dish when Pearl lets it slip she bought some hard candy while in town picking up medicine for her father.
In town, she goes into the movie house for some escapism but bumps into the projectionist (David Corenset) outside. They seem to flirt a little but she goes home but still fantasizes about the projectionist who she sees again and he shows her a stag movie late at night. Pearl also hears from her sister-in-law, Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), of an audtion coming up at one of the churches for a traveling dancing troupe which they are both interested in. Pearl sees it as a way out of her circumstances but she is overwhelmed by the responsibilities of taking care of her father with her mother and working on the farm.
Pearl, like a lot of young women of the era, got married young thinking it was going to make their lives better but discovered nothing is changed. She’s still treated like a child by Ruth, who lets it slip during a scene of anger that she’s upset she’s having to be a “mother” to her husband. In an awkward scene, Pearl bathes while her father sits inches away. At other times, she wears overalls and a plain blue shirt as she rides her bike to and from town similar to the way Margaret Hamilton rode a bicycle in The Wizard of Oz. She’s just a plain old country girl who wants more.
Yet, she’s held down. When Mitsy’s mother brings a roasted pig for them, Ruth refuses it as “charity” and it’s kept on the front porch where it rots and maggots feast on it. Ruth feels Pearl should suffer just as much as her if not more. Mitsy comes from an affluent family but her husband is away at war, as well. And even though Mitsy seems friendly, she feels she’s superior to Pearl. The same with the projectionist who doesn’t mind flirting and the eventual one-night stand, he loses interest once he sees where she’s from.
Martin Scorsese says he was impressed by the movie and it kinda reminds me of a cross between Carrie and Taxi Driver, (which he directed while his friend/colleague Brian DePalma directed the other one) both released in 1976. On one hand, Pearl is the victim of an abusive, overbearing mother like Carrie, and she feels ostracized by the townspeople for her more simple ways. But she already has these lonely feelings of isolation and rage in her just like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. And like both Carrie White and Bickle, when she snaps it’s out of revenge but also a feeling that she’s doing the right thing in the end.
Goth does a better role here than in X with either character. There’s a sweet all-American look to her that you’d find people like her a dime a dozen in any town in America. And it’s that gullibleness and naive attitude that makes her the target of her mother’s anger and lustful conquest of the projectionist. The ending where she smiles at Howard when he returns is the look of a person who is trying so hard to mask her true feelings while at the same time being the perfect wife.
West, who co-wrote the script with Goth, offers less violence and less gore this time around. One death could be considered an accident. Yet the movie leaves the open-ended question of how Pearl and Howard were allowed to live in the community so long without people raising questions. It also begs the question, how many women have they’re been like Pearl who got into bad relationships and get stuck in families they don’t want. What’s the difference between Ruth and Pearl? Nothing. They’re both psychopaths. It’s just that Pearl lashed out more violently.
What do you think? Please comment.