Going Crazy During a Pandemic

Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story

2022's X is a visceral little movie. It's a slasher that knows what audiences for these typical films come for, sex and violence, and delivers on that front. In the process it plays with the notion of characters heading out into the backwoods, getting trapped at a Texas farmhouse and getting murdered by backwoods hicks. It manages to combine a number of film ideas -- porn, slasher, Texas Chainsaw -- into something that felt fresh and over-the-top. It worked.

But it also had narrative threads left hanging that, on its own, the film didn't answer. This wasn't a downside as these moments felt like unexplained character development. Why did Mia Goth's character Maxine look like a younger version of Mia Goth's character Pearl? That wasn't detailed in the film (beyond having Mia Goth play both characters) but it also didn't have to be. It was a coincidence that acted as an "inciting moment", and then the whole film escalated from there. However, moments like this could have been explored, and any good film series can take these kinds of threads to spin out further works within the universe.

Even with that in mind, I doubt people expected that the prequel, Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story (also released in 2022) would be quite the film that was released. While X takes the guise of a traditional slasher film, Pearl (which is set in 1918) goes hard in the direction of classic, old school productions. There's a theatricality to it, like the film was made during the sweeping epics of the 1920s and 1930s. A film released just after "talkies" became the norm, when studios were still designing productions on sound stages with all the pomp and artificiality this required. It works in the context, for obvious reasons we'll get to, but it's about as far from the grimy style of X as you could get while still, deep down, having slasher horror elements. It's weird, but it works.

Pearl follows it's titular character, Pearl, a young woman (played by Mia Goth) trapped on her family farm while her husband is off fighting overseas in the Great War. Her mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), is a cold and distant woman, a German immigrant who came over to America with her husband (Matthew Sunderland) in hopes of a new, better life. Instead, soon after Pearl was born, the husband had some health issue that left him infirm and paralyzed, while Ruth had to take care of everything on their farm. This wasn't the life she signed up for, and seeing her daughter grow up full of big dreams and big plans certainly didn't help the woman's relationship with her daughter.

But Ruth also sees a darkness in Pearl. The younger woman has a tendency towards violence (as illustrated early on when she kills a duck with a pitchfork and then feeds it to an alligator to hide the evidence). Ruth worries about what Pearl will do if she's not under her mother's watchful eye. But Pearl wants nothing more than to go off and be a star. A singer and dancer on the stage who will light up rooms. She imagines her world as one big stage, her the center of the story and the center of attention. She hates that she wants to get away, to flee her life and abandon the life she could have with her husband, Howard, if he were ever to return. But a new man in her life, a movie projectionist (David Corenswet) at the theater Pearl likes to frequent, gives her hopes that might not be realistic. And lord help everyone if Pearl doesn't manages to fulfill her dreams.

In general I'm not a fan of prequels. What can you say about a character that wasn't already said (or at least deeply implied) in the previous film. More often than not, prequels are studies in navel gazing, filling in story details that didn't need to be filled in for the sake of stretching out a series. "There's money to be made here," seems to be the general reason for a prequel, without any sense that a real story had to be told, especially when we already know where the character will end up in the end. However, due to those narrative threads left unexplored in X, there is fodder for legitimate character development via a prequel.

Aiding matters, of course, is that Pearl is a distant prequel set do far before the events of X (in the neighborhood of 60 years) that the film has to stand on its own, exploring its central character, Mia Goth's Pearl, without simply making winking references to the previous film. Instead, we get to find out why Pearl is murderous, why she's obsessed with the younger looking woman, and just what left her trapped on her farm, unable to leave by the time we see her in X. The answer, in short, is that she's crazy. Mad as a hatter, through and through.

Maybe that's a simple answer but it works in the context of the film. Pearl was always bad, a woman on the verge of becoming a serial (or spree) killer, and all it would take was the right incident to cause her to snap fully. That incident, in this case, was the promise of being able to become a star. A chance at stardom arrives in town (via a touring dance troupe) and Pearl wants to go and audition. Her mother forbids it, and repeated refusals to allow her daughter to go causes Pearl to go over the edge. While I won't spoil the details about what happens after, I will say that there are some truly gory kills (to match the best of what occurs in X) that occur once Pearl goes down her dark (and expected) path.

That's the thing about Pearl that the film, being a prequel, can't escape. We already know Pearl is murderous in X so it's not a matter of if, in Pearl, she will become an axe murderer but when. Something has to kick it off. Something has to send her over the edge. Something that has to be bad enough that, sixty years later she's still on that farm while her husband, Howard, tries to warn everyone away. He knows she's crazy, but he protects her and, in the process, protects the world from her. That's the story we get her, in Pearl: what happened to lead us to that situation in X.

Of course, that also helps to explain why Pearl is so obsessed with Maxine in X: she had dreams of being a young and beautiful star (which Maxine shares in her own story). When Pearl thinks (in X) that there might just be a way for her to becomes Maxine, her obsession driving her down a truly crazy path, we now know why. She always wanted to be a star and she sees Maxine going down the same path. Clearly they're connected, right? That's crazy of course, but once you've seen Pearl's story in this prequel you at least understand how her character could think that way.

But the film doesn't just do a basic origin story for a slasher killer; it finds a way to be artistic about it. Many sequences clearly occur within Pearl's head as she dreams of her better life. It reminds me, in a way, of the 2002 film Chicago, which was also about a crazy kill who dreamed of being a starlet on the stage. Reality and fiction intertwine in their heads and it allowed the films to indulge in artistic, theatrical flourishes that couldn't occur in a more down-to-earth production. I like the flourishes as they make Pearl into more than just a slasher flick. It's artsy and weird and really interesting.

Deep down, though, it is a slasher, so you have to want to watch a horror film to have any interest in Pearl. Whether you liked X or not, Pearl is an interesting and fresh take on the slasher genre that's worth seeing on its own. You don't have to know the details of the previous film to be able to settle into the story here, and there's a lot of artistic ideas that make this film work on its own. As long as you like horror you'll find something interesting here in this prequel, making it a solid watch for any fan of the genre.