Mia Goth as Pearl

PEARL is a pandemic horror movie, but not how you might think

Earlier this year, Ti West released his horror movie X, which was shot one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, just before the wide availability of vaccines, taking advantage of New Zealand’s rigorous quarantine standards and relatively contained virus. The movie, about a small crew attempting to shoot a porn movie on a secluded farm in 1979, is a recognizably pandemic-related production in its limited locations and modest cast size, but that’s ultimately just a behind-the-scenes tidbit—one of many COVID-era productions where the precautions and nerves are allowed to stay mostly offscreen. X has plenty else closer to front of mind, too, about the joys of low-budget filmmaking, the desperate drive of young flesh and corresponding frustrations of old age, and how society expects sexual desire to dwindle with time, especially in women. (It’s also, somehow, a wildly entertaining slasher picture.) There was no need to make it a pandemic movie, too. But it turns out, West and his star Mia Goth did actually make a pandemic movie out in New Zealand; they just didn’t tell anyone until X was all done.

Pearl, a prequel of sorts to X, offers an origin story for that movie’s principal killer (played by Goth in old-age makeup in the film, the better to double her with Maxine, the aspiring porn actress still in full command of her youthful heat). It doesn’t best X, but it certainly out-pandemics it: West and Goth co-wrote the movie quickly during their New Zealand arrival quarantine, preparing to take advantage of the X sets by placing Pearl largely on the same farm sixtysomething years earlier. Beyond that practicality, though, Pearl is a COVID movie in its soul, even if the movie doesn’t exactly come out and say it.

Then again, it’s not completely buried. Setting the film in 1918 means that its characters are still wary of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which lingers in the background; a severe mother (Tandi Wright) reminds her farmgirl daughter Pearl (Goth again) to wear a mask when she heads into town for supplies. Her mother stays home, joylessly and devoutly tending to her wheelchair-bound husband (Matthew Sunderland), who is mostly paralyzed and incapable of speech. Pearl has a husband off in the Great War, but has grown restless waiting for his return. She sneaks out to the pictures, and glories to the sight of performers in silent movies, hoping that she—a self-taught dancer—might her way out to Hollywood someday.

Textually, the Spanish Flu is more of an inconvenience to Pearl; based on her roiling and seething and bursts of rebellious violence, she regards her domineering, sacrifice-minded mother and assorted family-farm obligations as larger roadblocks on her potential escape route. But the isolation of the movie’s production carries over to its mis-en-scene: Pearl spends a lot of time alone, at one point dancing (and, uh, more than dancing) with a scarecrow, a sad warping of The Wizard of Oz, with Pearl as a more tragic Dorothy figure. That the movie’s bright Technicolor-inspired palette takes some cues from the 1939 movie—released two decades after this movie’s setting, though the Oz book series was at twelve at counting by 1918—is part of West’s beguiling tapestry. His movie is set towards the beginning of the commercial cinema, but it calls forward not just to the splashy fantasy of Oz and 1930s musicals, but also the lush women’s pictures of the 1950s, with Goth playing a version of a Douglas Sirk heroine who snaps rather than endures—or rather, snaps in order to endure. If these cultural touchstones postdate the movie’s time period, well, so does the very notion of a slasher movie, which is there on the edges of this one, a kind of innocent-farmgirl riff on the animal-maiming origins always presented for killers like Leatherface or Michael Myers. Clearly, Pearl is a woman out of time.

And even if she has pre-existing mental-health problems, pandemic-era loneliness clearly exacerbates her condition. This might sound like a different sort of fearmongering—the concern-trolling for “mental health” from people who really just wanted to hustle everyone back to status quo as COVID continued to spread—but it’s not just social distancing causing the situation to deteriorate. While Pearl and her family have successfully survived the pandemic so far, they’ve still clearly been left to fend mostly for themselves. Pearl’s mother demands her daughter’s help—what Pearl sees as servitude—because no other help is coming, and the family has trained themselves to refuse “charity” like the (granted, somewhat ostentatious) meal that richer friends try to drop off.

West and Goth are also savvy about other, more peculiar pressures of isolation and lockdown. The absence of Pearl’s husband is both a burden and a constant threat; he’s stranded her with the family she wants desperately to abandon—but also may have left her with an opening to actually break free. At one point, she startles herself, thinking she’s seen him trudging homeward as she speeds by with a new potential beau, and when she goes to a local dance audition, there’s a sense of ticking clock, that this might be her one chance to blow town before further domestic responsibility will re-emerge, stronger than ever. In other words, she had hopes for a quarantine project, maybe even a full pandemic reset, and she’s already frustratingly behind on it.

If that reading sounds a little cute, it’s only because I identified, to some extent, with Pearl’s state of mind, never moreso than when she escapes to the local cinema: going to the movies alone, dutifully masked up, trying to lose herself in big-screen fantasy, and actively hoping to ignore the bleakness right in front of her—gruesome war footage plays on newsreels, mimicking the myriad horrors available even to viewers who feel relatively safe from the virus. She’s basically every movie nerd who tiptoed back into theaters at whatever point during this ongoing pandemic, uncertain if this was the safest or smartest activity, and equally unwilling to give it up. (I don’t know if Pearl would have paid good money to rent out two different auditoriums showing The New Mutants and Tenet, but I’d like to think so.) In a COVID world, promos, sequences, and even full films have been commissioned extolling the magic of the movies; Pearl, in a neat link to its predecessor, cheekily acknowledges that the magic of the movies can be plenty dangerous, too. West stages a few gnarly kills and gruesome tableaux, but the movie is most chilling when it lingers in Goth’s moony, panicked eyes, and then, later, lets her spill her own guts in a bravura monologue, the kind of despairing self-analysis that can result from sitting in your own head.

It’s these details that make Pearl a richer pandemic film than most fellow members of this emergent, inevitable mico-genre. Some have been glorified theater-on-film experiments, sticking a couple of actors into a tight space and letting them simmer and boil over (Locked Down, which at least has a heist element to work with; Together, which does not). Others are more nakedly opportunistic in their desire to wring “current” thrills out of a global disaster, like the Michael Bay-produced Songbird. Even the high-water mark of pandemic movies, Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, captures COVID on the long, slow downslope, using it as the perfect accelerant for its heroine’s anxieties. Pearl, meanwhile, jumps back over a century from our blighted present to come up with something that’s both more beautiful and boldly grotesque. That’s why even its shortcomings ultimately feel of a piece, even as it fails to live up to the high standard of X (no shame in not matching one of the best horror movies of the past few years). The newer film has some delirious scenes and some stretches in between where West and Goth appear to be killing time, drawing the movie out past 90 minutes because they technically can, as if wary of making an 80-minute movie that might feel too much like a bonus feature.

A version of Pearl given more time to come together might not show as many stitches as this one. I wonder, though, if some of its strange whims might have been jettisoned, rethought, or shaped into something that felt, on some level, more sensible, even within the slasher-prequel realm. If some of Pearl goes off half-cocked, that quality also feels more authentically time-warped into a much more recent past than 1918. Though little of it is traditional horror, it pulses with an eerily familiar sensation: Feeling self-destructively tired of all the waiting.