Pearl: an X-traordinary Origin Story serves as a prequel to Ti West’s X (2022), another slasher film released this year to rave reviews for its filmmaking and its homages to 70s classic slasher horror. Pearl, like its predecessor, serves as a homage vehicle to classic Hollywood films as well as slasher films. It serves as an origin story for the nonagenarian killer of the first movie, played again by Mia Goth, in a story written by both Ti West and herself. The following will contain spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Pearl (2022) Plot Summary and Synopsis:
The year is 1918, and the movie begins with the camera panning forward as the stable door opens, and we are introduced to the Texas homestead where Pearl lives. We see her wearing what is later revealed to be her mother’s dress. As she looks at the mirror, we see the lights shut down, a spotlight drops on her, and we see her dancing to a classical musical score until suddenly, the door opens, and the dream breaks. Her mother chastises her for her tardiness and for trying out the dress without her permission and instructs her to go to the barn and feed the animals. At the barn, she voices to the animals her dreams of becoming a star, of being a chorus girl and part of a troupe, and as the music swells in the background and we believe in her head, she climbs up the bales of hay, almost structured like a stage, with the camera following her. As the music dies down, we see her looking at a stray goose entering the barn. Quizzically looking at it, she walks up to the goose and kills it with her pitchfork.
While we aren’t given the visual of her driving the pitchfork through the flesh of the goose, the immediate next scene is her walking towards the nearby lake, where she feeds the bloody carcass to her alligator named Theda. Like any classic Hollywood movie, the name of the movie appears in full greyish font with a big brassy score, meant to evoke the musicals of the 40s and 50s, but with a very tongue-in-cheek perspective, as evident by the name appearing the instant the alligator manages to bite the goose carcass.
As the movie progresses, we learn that her parents are German immigrants. Her mother is the domineering matriarch of the household, while her father is infirm and paralyzed. Her husband, Harold, on the other hand, is currently serving in World War I, and her presence is missed by Pearl dearly, as evidenced by her reading through her letters. We will, however, be proved wrong as subsequent events occur. We see her feeding her father medicine, after presumably bathing him, before enjoying the hot water in the bathtub while recounting her plan to watch the movies when she goes to the town to pick up his medicine. Her mother then reminds her to cover her face and not linger too close to anyone, lest sickness wreaks havoc on their house again.
It puts the film’s timeline into sharper focus, as 1918 was when the Spanish Influenza virus global pandemic was at its fever pitch. It is made more evident as we follow Pearl cycling from her village to the town. We see people wearing masks and makeshift tents marked as “Standard Influenza Medicine Depots” as Pearl cycles over to the pharmacy to buy her father’s medicine. She then sneaks into the cinema hall to watch the musical “Palace Follies,” As she watches the showgirls perform, her mind fantasizes about being a part of this troupe someday. She later meets Johnny, the projectionist, outside the hall. A charming man, he compliments her on her looks and states that he wishes to see her on the screen someday, and then cuts out a frame of the film and gifts her.
Swayed by the compliment, Pearl cycles back but suddenly has to stop in horror as the little frame of the film gets blown away by a gust of wind towards the cornfield. Walking through the cornfield in search of that frame, she comes across a scarecrow, and after climbing up its frame and throwing it to the ground, Pearl starts dancing with it. The music and her imagination take over her, and she starts kissing the scarecrow and suddenly sees Johnny’s face imprinted over him. Guilt overcoming her, she screams, “I am married.” However, that doesn’t stop her from masturbating by gyrating against the scarecrow.
She manages to wear the top hat of the Scarecrow, which comes under the notice of her mother’s watchful eye, who urges her not to bring it inside. She also urges her to wash her hair and ensure her father is cleaned up. The next scene shows Pearl washing her hair and recounting the film she watched with her father. As she sees the infirmed man almost dozing off, she tries to pinch his finger, almost tearing his skin off. Her almost childlike psychopathy comes to full effect when she whispers, “Are you still there?” and then almost tries to choke him. Later, at dinner, her mother informs her that eight cents are missing, and Pearl’s answer only serves to make her angrier and withhold her food because, according to her, “the food I worked hard to prepare is not your supper.”
The next day, Pearl’s sister-in-law, clearly of far higher financial standing as evidenced by the car they arrive in and the pot roast they bring for Pearl and her parents, informs her of an audition for dancers with a traveling troupe being held at the church. Pearl, realizing that this is one of the feasible ways out of her current circumstance, agrees to join her at the audition and not tell a soul.
Meanwhile, in the background, Pearl’s mother refuses the pig roast, which forces Mitsy’s mother just to lay the pig roast at the door in frustration. That night, Pearl sneaks out of the house and cycles out to the town to visit the projectionist. Johnny receives her warmly and entertains her with stories of Europe and how she had a chance of getting there and being the biggest star if “she wanted it bad enough.” He then entices her to watch a movie that “no one had seen before” and thus shows her “A Free Ride,” an illicit stag film he had acquired in Europe. That was the first time Pearl became cognizant of an underground adult film industry, how doing public fornication isn’t illegal, but filming is. And as Johnny portentously proclaims, this is the future, and he intends to encash it before it becomes big, and Pearl might even have a future in these films if she wants to.
Pearl, finally able to share and talk with someone outside of her farm, reveals that she could only strive to fulfill her dreams after her parents died. In response to the platitude Johnny throws her way regarding how she has one life that should be taken while she is young, Pearl almost imperceptibly whispers, “If only they would just die.” As Pearl returns home, climbs up to her room through the roof, and shimmies in through the window, she hears her mother sobbing alone in the night.
How and why did Pearl kill her parents?
Her words would come to pass sooner rather than later. Her contemplation begins to take a far more sinister and concrete form when she attempts to push her father, who uses a wheelchair, down the lake and feed him to her pet alligator, but her mother interferes. In a rare moment of introspection, when Pearl asks her mother, “When do I get what I want?” her mother answers in the most pragmatic way befitting her—”One day you’ll understand. Getting what you want isn’t what’s important. Making the most of what you have is.” Pearl’s hatred for her husband too slowly starts to be visualized as something far more concrete than stray thoughts. She finds an alligator egg near the banks of the lake and squishes it in her hand, imagining her returning husband’s body exploding from the inside.
At dinner that night, her mother reveals to Pearl that she had found the program of the film, which Pearl had managed to hide a couple of scenes before. She ordered Pearl to sleep in the bunker for fear of bringing the disease home. Undeterred, Pearl revealed that there was an audition the next day, and she wanted to participate. As a counter, her mother chastises Pearl for being ungrateful for her efforts and wonders whether she thinks she is above her station.
Pearl emphatically states that she is not under any illusion that she might have to live out on this farm for the rest of her days, but she is going to try to see if she can rise above this. Whether there is something better than the lot she is saddled with is unknown. She had never performed in front of an audience before and wanted to know whether she was good enough to be a star. Then Ruth, Pearl’s mother, drops the bombshell. She knows what Pearl has done. She knows what Pearl can do in private, and, as her emotional range revs up to 11, she screams, stating that Pearl is not well. Ruth was scared that the world would come to know about the malevolence and cruelty that she knew Pearl was capable of.
Ruth then holds a knife at her infirm husband’s throat, offering to kill him for Pearl, freeing both of them from the yoke of this life. She finally proclaims that she wouldn’t suffer for Pearl any longer and urges her to go, with the caveat that when she fails (emphasis on “when,” not “if”), she will remember what it feels like. She finally asks what is possibly there for Pearl to take away from her that the world hadn’t already. With a hint of fear, Pearl replies, “I don’t want to end up like you, is all.” Ruth slaps Pearl in anger as their altercation turns physical. Pearl screams out her hatred for her mother and shoves her into the kitchen hearth, igniting her dress and resulting in Ruth being burnt. Leaving her father in the kitchen, Pearl drags her mother down to the basement and locks her there. Then she leaves the house in the middle of the stormy night and rushes to the cinema, where she has sex with Johnny.
What made Pearl kill Johnny?
The next day, Pearl wakes up early so she can return to the farm to prepare for her audition. Johnny offers to drive her up to her farm. As they arrive, Pearl asks Johnny to wait while she goes inside and tries to tidy up the mess at her house. She tidies up her father and securely locks the door to her cellar. Meanwhile, Johnny becomes perturbed by the maggot-infested roasted pig still outside her door. His perturbed and suspicious nature starts to increase as she sees Pearl’s exceedingly theatrical nature while introducing him to her father, taking him to her bedroom, and engaging in a make-out session, irrespective of the noise coming from the basement. Johnny, feeling ill at ease, goes down to the kitchen to see the table, with the dishes of food strewn around, which have been unclean since last night.
Pearl appears behind him, creeping him out and telling him that they have a dog in the basement, which they have kept locked up. Pearl’s recollection is too inconsistent to ignore, so Johnny attempts to leave, which only manages to make Pearl paranoid, thinking he is leaving her because he is afraid of her. Flying in a fit of rage, almost resembling her mother in how her rage causes her to explode in bursts of anger, Pearl uses the pitchfork to stab Johnny to death while he is driving away to escape, screaming that “Nothing is going to keep me here, not you, not Howard, not Mama.”
As the car stops, Pearl pulls the stabbed Johnny out of the car and drives the pitchfork through his face, giving out a cathartic, angry yell. She then opens the basement to see the burnt, barely alive body of Ruth and whispers back to her what Ruth had said previously, “I want you to remember what it feels like because that’s how I felt when you looked at me.” She then pushes her further down the basement. Pearl then cleans her father up, dresses him up to the nines, and herself in one of Ruth’s lavish red gowns, before thanking her father for everything and then suffocating him with a pillow cover.
Pearl arrives at the church where her sister-in-law Mitzy is waiting for her so that they can wait for the audition together. Pearl, somehow, after the events of the morning, had a sense of brazen confidence about her and a determination that the only girl who would be selected to be part of this troupe must be her. Mitzy, on the other hand, was nervous and even convinced Pearl to switch seats with her so that she wouldn’t have to audition earlier. Pearl enters the room, climbs on the stage, and delivers the best performance she has ever given, according to her, lost in the haze of the performative high. But the judges soundly reject her, stating that she lacks the “X-factor” and that they are looking for someone younger, blonde, and “all-American.” As she is dragged off the stage, Pearl screams out that she is a star and that there has been a mistake. Distraught profoundly, Pearl is finally taken back home by Misty. In the kitchen, Pearl confides in Misty that something is very wrong with her. Mitzy consoles her and advises her to share all her fears with Howard, her husband, because he loves her and would understand. She advises Pearl to practice the confession on her, pretending she is Howard.
Pearl (2022) Movie Ending, Explained – Why is Pearl resentful towards Howard?
In a long, eight-minute monologue, Pearl pours her heart out. She reveals that she hated Howard for leaving her here. She reveals that she had been curious about other men and had slept with another man. She states that she had been flattered that someone like him, a handsome and good man, would pine over her, and she was mindful not to make him jealous, as she was familiar with the twisted and rotten nature of that emotion, having suffered from jealousy over people whose lives were easy. She knew that Howard came from privilege, and in him, Pearl had finally realized a way out of the stasis of her life. Thus, she knew she was lucky to have his attention. That he came from a life and a home “straight out of the pictures,” and she wanted to have that. But instead of taking her away, he wanted to stay at their farm. And that made her angry, thinking about his selfishness after everything she had done to make him happy.
She then revealed that she had suffered from a miscarriage but was relieved to hear that. She could not bear the thought of being a mother and was repulsed at the idea of something growing inside her. Her dream was to be in the pictures, to be adored, loved, and desired. She hated feeling this way; unloved, unable to understand what was wrong with her, and her prayers not being answered by God. Sometimes her fear washes over her, and she is forced to wonder whether this is the extent of her life. Whether she would be able to move forward beyond her farm was unclear. She acknowledges that her mama was right about her being weak, and now she is scared that Howard will finally return home and see her for what she truly is and become frightened of her.
Pearl admits that she liked killing and murdering animals who were weak and defenseless. However, when she finally killed her mother and Johnny, she revealed that those were different. Those had meaning. She had killed them to ensure they suffered, but she also admitted that her father didn’t deserve that. She implores Howard, stating that she would be the person he wants her to be. She could love him if he truly meant the vow of “Till Death do us part” because she can’t bear to remain alone anymore. Together on this farm, the two of them would be enough because all she wanted was to be loved.
Mitzy is too stunned to speak after that confession and gets up from the table to leave, stating that her mother would be worried if she was late. As she begins to leave, Pearl asks her whether she is frightened of her or whether she thinks Pearl is sick. After Mitzy answers negatively to both of them, fully cognizant at the moment as to how dangerous Pearl is, Pearl manipulates her into confessing that she had been selected for the dance troupe. After she answers in the affirmative, Pearl gives a wry smile and states, “You always get everything that you want. You are younger and more blonde.” As Mitzy opens the door and begins to leave, she sees Pearl coming out of the house with an axe. She tries to escape, screaming for help, but Pearl catches up to her and swings her axe, maiming Mitzy. She falls to the ground, and Pearl towers over her, and as she sobs and implores that she would do anything Pearl wanted, Pearl repeats Ruth’s advice given to her near the lake-“It’s not about what I want. It’s about making the best of what I have, “and swings the axe and kills her.
We see Pearl walking downstairs towards the basement where her mother’s body unceremoniously lies. She hoists the body near the stairs and hugs her as if trying to ooze the last bit of affection from her mother as she passes away. In a montage sequence, we see Pearl getting ready to “clean” up the house before her husband arrives. She had pushed Johnny’s body along with the car down the lake (a homage to the final sequence of Psycho). Now we see her chopping Mitzy’s body and feeding it to Theda, her alligator. She dresses her parents’ corpses up and sets the table for dinner, with the maggot-infested pig gifted by her mother-in-law as the star attraction. As her husband Howard returns from the war, he comes inside the house and is faced with that dreadful sight at the table, and is then met by his wife, waiting for him with a lemonade jar, wistfully smiling and saying, “I am so happy you are home.”
As the movie ends with that unnerving and creepy smile adorning Pearl’s face, we are left to wonder how Howard survived. As the events of “X” had already foretold, Howard survives the carnage. It could be inferred that he stuck around with his mass-murdering wife either because he didn’t want to meet the same fate as his in-laws or because he truly loved her and recognized she wasn’t well and wanted to take care of her. It could also be safely inferred that Howard might have been responsible for keeping Pearl’s murderous tendencies limited to the boundaries of their farm.
Pearl (2022) Review and Analysis
There is almost a demented glee permeating through every frame of Pearl as Ti West looks to craft a horror movie set in the aesthetics of the Disney family films like The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins. The filmmaking aesthetic, thus, eschews bright, colorful, and, dare I say it, almost all-American. The cinematography and the visual language during Pearl’s dreams of becoming a star resembled those of a musical with how the shots are framed or how the camera pans forward or rotates as it explores the contours of Pearl’s already fractured psyche.
By putting the film smack dab in 1918, in the middle of the Spanish Influenza-affected global pandemic, West is also trying to comment on the very real pandemic we are in the midst of almost a century later. It explores the feelings of isolation and cabin fever, the heightened moments of loneliness, and the urge to escape the monotony of small-town drudgery, to realize whether her current lot of life is the only form in which life exists. This feeling only gets compounded as Pearl’s mother’s strictness feels warped due to fear of the pandemic and the fear of understanding and realizing Pearl’s malevolence.
Pearl works not only as a commentary on Golden-Age Hollywood films, but it also seems to work as an effective skewering against the “All-American” image of farm life, with the white picket fence and the barn and the peaceful life on a homestead. The final montage showing Pearl chopping off Mitzy’s hand is equally remarkable because of how visually presented the whole ordeal’s bright and bloody. Even Mitzy’s murder is motivated by the fact that she is “pretty and blonde,” the very image of an “All-American” as expected by the judges. The final sequence of Pearl smiling that wide-eyed smile, which doesn’t reach her eyes, as the wife studiously waits for her husband to return home, and the brass music closing the film out, is a final coda in this demented and cracked mirror version of a Golden Age Hollywood film, with its brightly toned color palette unable to hide the rot and violence within.
At the core of Pearl is the Mia Goth show, where Goth single-handedly elevates the material with a performance bordering on incandescent. You cannot look away, and it is because of Goth that Pearl manages to remain sympathetic to us even after her murdering ways take over her. Goth successfully captures the emotional whiplash which Pearl goes through as paranoia and anger take over her.
It is undeniable that at 102 minutes, Pearl (2022) feels longer than it has to. The slower pacing might feel intentional, but there are moments where scenes occur that feel redundant or have already been set up by dialogue. However, the moments underscoring or building up the violent acts are well done. A healthy dose of restraint is shown here during those moments, which catapults this prequel above its predecessor. While it tries to explore more profound moments of isolation and mental health, Pearl never loses sight of its demented charm and its skewering of its homages, unlike in X, where the homages felt more slavishly faithful than anything else. But as far as iconography in horror is concerned, Pearl might just have cracked it.